At this sleepy little Santa Fe Depot, I squinted my eyes and tried to imagine it as the bustling hub of Gainesville, Texas. That was hard to do when there wasn’t another person on the street with me. However, in 1944, passenger tickets sales for the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railway in Gainesville were the 8th largest in the nation! Soldiers from nearby Camp Howze (an infantry replacement training camp), families with fidgety children, and businessmen would have crowded the sidewalks, sweating in the midday sun.
Built in 1902, the brick train station served passengers until December 1979, when the last Amtrak train came thundering down the tracks. For twenty years, the station was unused by passengers, until the Amtrak Heartland Flyer began making a stop here in 1999. You can still hop aboard a train in Gainesville, but only twice a day. That’s not why you want to stop at the depot. Visitors to this neck of the woods need to stop because it houses a gem of a museum that pays homage to (among other things, including memorabilia of the Gainesville Community Circus) the first twenty-nine years of operation — when a Fred Harvey lunch counter operated out of the building. As a sweet aside, it might also have a ghost! Hang on. I’ll get around to that in a minute.
Although the counter has long since been removed, you can still see the outline on the floor of where it stood. Displays throughout the building give you a hint of what it was like when waitresses in black dresses, black hose, polished black shoes, and crisp white pinafore aprons efficiently buzzed about the counter serving meals to hundreds of passengers each day.They were The Harvey Girls. The picture on the left shows the Harvey Girls and their German-born chef, Ernest Emil Schurig, around the lunch counter.
This tiny museum in Cooke County, Texas preserves a bit of the Harvey Girl history. It whetted my appetite for more. I had no idea the part that the Harvey Girls, and their employer, Fred Harvey, played in changing the West.
Fred Harvey came to the United States from England in 1853 at the age of seventeen. Like most immigrants, he was chasing the American Dream — and he caught it. His first jobs were as a dishwasher and as a busboy in a restaurant in New York. He quickly moved up the ladder, learning all about the food service industry. He later owned restaurants but the Civil War, and the depressed economy following it, hampered his success. Then, he had a brilliant idea: he made a deal in 1876 with the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railway to put eating houses along the rail line.
Rail travel in the 1800s was pretty miserable. With no air conditioning, the open windows made for dusty, hot travel … with no food served! Passenger had to wait until the train stopped, every hundred miles or so, and hope to be able to buy beans and biscuits during the short pause at the station. Fred Harvey changed all that with his Harvey lunch counters — the first restaurant chain in the United States. Ticket masters queried the passengers about whether they planned to eat at the next stop and telegraphed ahead, so that the chefs at the Harvey diners could plan for the amount of food to have ready.
Excellent food, served on fine china, awaited the passengers. Imagine how difficult it would have been to accommodate everyone during the twenty minute stop! Was the food excellent? Yes, it was only the best. Beef was shipped in daily from Kansas City; oysters and clams were shipped from the coast; and in Gainesville the water was deemed unsuitable for coffee, so it was shipped in daily from Fort Worth! Here is an excerpt from a 1927 Harvey diner menu, on display at the Gainesville Depot Museum, to give you an idea of what foods you might find waiting at the next stop.
Prime rib of beef for $1.10? Jumbo Bull Frog Almandienne? Grilled Boston Scrod? I don’t even know what a Scrod is, and I don’t think I want to find out!
All of this would have been served to you by those immaculate and efficient Harvey Girls. That women were serving the food in these fine establishments was a bit of a novelty in those days. Before Fred Harvey started hiring women to serve in his diners, most waitresses were “shady ladies,” or at least perceived to be so. Waitressing was not considered a job for a proper young lady.
The story goes that in a Fred Harvey restaurant in Raton, New Mexico, the waiters were a bunch of rowdy ruffians. After a fight one night, they didn’t show up for work the next day. Mr. Harvey was so enraged that he fired the lot of them and promptly advertised for young ladies to take the positions. Ads went out in newspapers across the land saying:
Wanted: Young women 18 to 30 years of age, of good moral character, attractive and intelligent, to waitress in Harvey Eating Houses on the Sante Fe in the West. Wages, $17.50 per month with room and board. Liberal tips customary. Experience not necessary. Write Fred Harvey, Union Depot, Kansas City, Missouri.
Adventurous young women from farms in the Midwest, cities in the northeast, and all points in between rushed to apply. The money was good, the thought of adventure in a new community out west was enticing, and some of the young ladies figured that there was always a chance that a suitable husband might be on the next train.
The women had to sign an affidavit that they were of good character, they had to agree not to marry within six months of employment, and they had to abide by strict rules of conduct (including “no expectorating on the floor”). After six weeks of training, they went to work.
Fred Harvey and his Harvey Girls raised the reputation of the job of waitress to a high level of respectability. In a time when there weren’t many jobs available to women, the Fred Harvey chain offered females a chance to gain independence. That history is commemorated at the Museum at the Depot in Gainesville, Texas.
I know what you are thinking. “Wait a minute, Shelly. You mentioned a ghost!” I did, didn’t I.
The ghost is upstairs, where you will find the rooms that were once occupied by the Harvey Girls who worked at the depot and the manager. There are seven sparsely furnished rooms that were for the girls, a common bathroom, and two rooms for the manager.
Who could it be? Your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps it is the manager of the Depot, making certain that these ladies of high moral character are safely tucked into their rooms at night? Perhaps it is the restless spirit of a Harvey Girl stepping down the hall to the communal bathroom? I suggest that you visit the museum and decide for yourself. It’s definitely worth the stop.
The museum is located at 605 East California Street in Gainesville. Just find the train tracks, and you will be there. Because it is a small town, you might want to call ahead before visiting at (940) 668-4579.[Note: If you are curious and want to read more about the Harvey Girls, I suggest Harvey Houses of Texas: Historic Hospitality from the Gulf Coast to the Panhandle (Landmarks) by Rosa Walston Latimer.]