Title: Postcards from West featured in new book
Author: Sandy Battin
Publication: The News-Bulletin
Every month, 700 or so people visit the Harvey House Museum in Belen, bringing stories about their time as a Harvey Girl or their stopovers there for supper in the heyday of the Santa Fe Railway.
The Harvey Houses -- scattered across the nation from Chicago to San Francisco and many large and small towns in between -- have become a piece of history, leftovers from the days when rail travel was chic and Americans were first starting to explore their continent-spanning nation for pleasure.
Dr. Richard Melzer, a history professor at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus, became involved with the Belen Harvey House in 1984, sitting on its board. Later on, he became a docent at the museum run there by the Valencia County Historical Society.
His work there caused him to begin a collection of postcards, searching through antique stores and on eBay to find one from each of the Harvey Houses in New Mexico. That passion has grown into a book, just out from Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series, called "Fred Harvey Houses of the Southwest" ($21.99).
On Sunday, Nov. 23, at 2 p.m. Melzer will talk about the subject at the Harvey House Museum, 104 N. First St. in Belen, and will hold a book signing.
The legend and the draw of the Harvey Houses is amazing, Melzer said. "There's one little sign ... on I-25 saying Historic Harvey House Museum, and we get 700 people a month here. We don't do a lot of advertising."
Part of the mystique arose as, using beautiful paintings and photographs, the Santa Fe and the Harvey Houses promoted Western travel. "They tried to make it an exotic experience to come to the West," Melzer said. "Now we call it cultural tourism."
The Harvey Houses sprung up along the Santa Fe line, offering hotels in some places and, as in Belen, just a restaurant.
Food served in some restaurants along the line wasn't consistent in quality, nor was it served fast enough for travelers to eat before the train started up again.
Fred Harvey came along with an idea for great service and good food served quickly and efficiently. Harvey Girls -- the famed waitresses who were required to change their aprons if a single drop of food spattered onto them -- gave service with a smile.
Melzer said many of them were small-town Midwestern girls who took the job as a road to adventure. Although they were closely chaperoned -- the girls lived dorm-style on the second floor at Belen's Harvey House -- many of them met and married local men and stayed on in the West.
The hotels especially were given exotic names -- "there was the Gran Quivera at Clovis, even though the real thing was hundreds of miles away," Melzer said.
The famed La Fonda in Santa Fe was part of the Harvey chain.
The good food drew people, travelers and locals alike. Rail workers got a pass that gave them a discount on food at Harvey Houses.
"They had refrigerated cars by the late 19th century and they could bring in fresh food," Melzer said. "Fred Harvey owned his own dairy and ranch in the Southwest at the Grand Canyon ,and he could bring in fresh food.
"They set a menu in Kansas City and made it so that there was enough variation on the menu that, if you traveled east to west or west to east, you never had the same meal twice."
They learned that 90 percent of travelers stopped for breakfast, 40 percent for lunch and 60 percent for dinner -- and they had the system worked out perfectly to serve those meals.
Belen's Harvey House was considered really uptown. "It was a sit-down restaurant with a dining room, the fanciest in town. They had lots of events here, regular customers. ... Bill Gore (a longtime Belen resident) told me that he'd take his dates there and spend a dime on Cokes, which were 5 cents each," the historian said.
The restaurant closed in Belen in 1938. "The Harvey Girls said they'd work for board and tips only, but they closed it anyway," he said.
Melzer said when he first decided to write a book, he had 30 postcards -- but the publishing company told him he needed 180.
He found some on e-bay, and was aided by collector L.A. Reed, who sent him boxes of possible photos.
The book is dedicated to the docents at the Belen Harvey House. "Boy, are they dedicated," Melzer said.
Melzer said people come in often, bringing their stories about their or their grandmothers having been Harvey Girls, and the docents always ask them to write a paragraph or two about their experiences.
They're being asked to attend Sunday's events, which are sponsored by the historical society.