Harvey Girls cheerfully served Southwest railroad travelers
Kiddney carefully carried manila folders stuffed with photographs and printouts and essays of El Paso’s Harvey House restaurant and its Harvey Girls, popular waitresses who were a part of railroad history and credited with bringing a touch of elegance and hospitality to train depots across the Wild West.
Kiddney was among a few group members who explored the former Harvey House restaurant at the Union Depot.
The Harvey Girls of El Paso – a group dedicated to preserving the history of Harvey Girls that worked in El Paso from 1906 to 1948 – have gathered information about the waitresses from other Harvey Girls historical organizations and El Pasoans who have memorabilia. El Paso has one of the few active Harvey Girls groups.
Harvey Girls wore conservative uniforms of a long black dresses covered almost entirely by a white pinafore. They came from all over the United States looking to earn the generous wage of $17.50 a month. They promised to “radiate cheer and make guests feel at ease and at home,” and worked efficiently and well.
Kiddney described the “cup code” of the Harvey Girls, using her hands to demonstrate the proper setting technique.
“You’ve got a choice of four beverages; coffee, hot tea, iced tea, or milk,” she told the El Paso Times. “You’d always be sitting at a four-place setting, with the cup and saucer in its proper place. If you wanted coffee, your cup would be right-side-up in your saucer. If you wanted iced tea, your cup would be upside down, placed about an inch away from the saucer. If you wanted hot tea, it would be upside down on the saucer. And if you wanted milk, it would be leaned against the saucer upside down.
“(The Harvey Girl) would go to the next table because you only had 30 minutes at most, to eat and clean up and get back on the track. And right behind her would be a gal with the beverages on a cart and she could look at your place setting and in a heartbeat everyone had something to drink.”
Kiddney led the expedition this week through the empty Sun Metro offices of the train depot, where the dining room of the local Harvey House once was located.
England-born entrepreneur Fred Harvey opened a chain of Harvey House restaurants at railroad stops from Chicago to the Pacific starting in 1876.
He advertised for “young women of good character, attractive and intelligent, 18 to 30.” In addition to their pay, the women were given free housing, food and clothing to work as waitresses and hostesses. They lived by strict guidelines, including a 10 p.m. curfew and being forbidden to fraternize with customers.
El Paso’s own Harvey House operated from 1906 to 1948. While none of the waitresses are alive today, the Harvey Girls of El Paso continue to meet and research local history. The group started in 2006 but only recently began having meetings at the train depot, which is still a stop for Amtrak.
“We’ve met five times here (at the train depot) since March,” Kiddney said. “We decided to have our meetings here because this is where it all happened. We like the ambience of travelers, coming and going.”
“It helps us understand,” Harvey Girls historian Pres Dehrkoop added. “We read and we learn a little more each time – more, and more, and more, and more.”
Kiddney pointed out the original mosaic tile, marble, and stained glass windows in the depot. She led the way through the old Sun Metro offices, and the Harvey Girls stepped foot in the Harvey House dining room for the first time.
“This is neat,” they said as they walked through the doors.
The empty offices had worn green carpet scattered with trash, but the high windows kept their original stained glass.
Dehrkoop said a tourist from Tucson, Ariz., once asked what was inside the train depot.
“I told her, ‘There’s architecture, there’s restrooms, there’s the ticket agent, and a nice mural of some buses.’ She said, ‘Why would I want to go in?’ They don’t know and they don’t care. So we want to bring back the history so people will get involved.”
The group descended into the basement for the first time. The Harvey Girls exclaimed over each discovery.
“An elevator! This is to die for,” Kiddney said, snapping photos of fellow Harvey Girls Carol Whitmore and Angie Amparan posing behind the iron gate.
“I want a picture of that little cubbyhole,” she said. “Girls, pretend to put something in the cubbies.” Whitmore and Amparan posed again.
Kiddney said the Harvey Girls recruit at different historical appreciation meetings with presentations in costume. Whitmore recited her lines as a wannabe-Harvey Girl from their program.
“I grew up on a farm, and I’m just sick of farm work, I take care of the chickens and I fix breakfast,” she said. “I’m sick of that. I need some excitement in my life. I’m looking for adventure! I want to see the mountains! I want to see the prairies! I want to see cowboys.”
Information from: El Paso Times, http://www.elpasotimes.com
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