The Fred Harvey Company

Frederick Henry Harvey was born in 1835 in London. As a 15 years old teenager he boarded, in Liverpool, a ship sailing for America, in search of a new and hopefully better life. Like millions of other immigrants, young Fred had little cash in his pockets but great dreams and ambitions in his soul.

Upon arrival in New York City he quickly found employment at the popular Smith & McNell’s restaurant as a “pot-walloper” or dishwasher. The restaurant was located across from the busy Washington Market in Lower Manhattan. McNell’s started in 1812 as a small neighborhood outdoor market bringing fresh food to urban dwellers. In a few decades the market became the largest in the city and it was all Henry Smith and Thomas McNell needed to turn the small coffee house they had bought in the early 1840’s into a high volume 1,000 seats eatery that catered to dealers, farmers and customers patronizing the busy market.

Unpretentious, inexpensive but offering fresh food and good, fast service, the restaurant operated 24 hours and was said to serve up to 10,000 meals a day!

Fred couldn’t have picked a better place to learn the restaurant trade. As a young, ambitious, hardworking immigrant, he somehow attracted the sympathy of his bosses who taught him the basics principles of the food and hospitality business. He worked his way up to bus boy, waiter and line cook before leaving in 1853 for New Orleans and then St Louis where, with a partner, he ran a profitable cafe. Unfortunately, when the Civil War broke out his partner enlisted in the Confederate Army and left town not without forgetting to take all the money they had saved! 

Broke and dejected, Harvey moved to Kansas and found employment with the Burlington Railroad for/with whom he travelled frequently and could not help noticing the despicable food and service railroad travelers had to endure and he readily found then and there his calling. What he had learned from Smith and McNell turned out to be invaluable. He opened his first Harvey House next to the rail depot in Topeka, Kansas in 1873. The pillars of his success were cleanliness, good and fresh food and brisk and efficient service. His clientele had only a 30 minute stop before the train left again, and they actually were able to eat the food they paid for at Fred’s place, which was a huge improvement on what use to happened before Harvey came to town!

In 1876 his partnership with the Santa Fe Railroad began and in a few years there was a Harvey House every 100 miles strung along the Santa Fe line.

At his death in 1901, the now Fred Harvey Company owned 42 restaurants, 16 hotels and 20 rail dining cars! The right man at the right place at the right time. But again, just as Louis Pasteur said “Luck favors the prepared minds” and that young English boy was prepared for sure. This is the background for the rest of the/his story.

After his death, Fred’s sons, daughter and her husband continued the management of the Company. The involvement of the Fred Harvey Company in the Southwest and its Native peoples was a direct consequence of the Company’s need of a steady flow of tourists customers. At the turn of the 20th century the renewed interest for the North American indigenous people combined with the beautiful and exotic sceneries of the Southwest desert offered an unusually powerful promotional tool to both the Fred Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railroad. What was good for one was also good for the other. The increasing number of travelers was good for the railroad, good for the Harvey houses and hotels and in addition was also good for Navajo and Hopi artists and artisans.

The epicenter and heart of the enterprise was the “Indian Department and Museum” at the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the brainchild of Fred Harvey’s daughter, Minnie and her husband, JF Huckel. Its success and significance is largely due to the astute and keen collector’s eye of Herman Schweizer their “anthropologist” manager. The museum was described as “the most extensive ethnological museum in the country” and “the largest and most complete of its kind in the world”. Navajo textiles occupied a prominent place as commercial and ethnographic items. Schweizer had an extensive personal connection throughout the Navajo and Hopi artist communities as well as with the traders on the reservations, especially JL Hubbell of Ganado, who supplied most of the contemporary weavings and some rare, classic blankets too.

These were the ones Schweizer was looking for. He was very aggressive in his quest, searching, acquiring, buying, collecting and even hoarding them. He bought entire collections of Classic and Late Classic blankets and sarapes from old Santa Fe and Arizona merchants and curio owners such as A F Spiegelberg and Arthur Seligman, or from early private collectors and their estates and from one of the first Taos painters Bert Phillips. He also used the services of two questionable characters, Pedro Muniz and Juan Olivas, who reportedly "had obtained old Navajo weavings in warfare or in trade” before the 1860’s!

A telling example of the depth and broadness of their textile holdings is the famous William Randolph Hearst Collection now housed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Most of the weavings were purchased from the Fred Harvey Company and the inventory is simply astonishing: 39 Chief’s blankets, 86 bayeta sarapes, 42 Child’s blankets and on and on and on! Should not be legal for one dude to own so many!

What was not sold, formed the core of the Indian Department Museum collection and was ultimately distributed between several institutions such as the Heard Museum in Phoenix and the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. Collectors and lovers of Southwest weavings and other art forms, are forever indebted to Herman Schweizer and the Fred Harvey Company for their “hoarding!” Their love, passion and maybe foresight in acquiring these old, used blankets at sometimes high prices, is the greatest legacy of the Fred Harvey Company, not the fact that it was the first restaurant chain ever created.

It is hard to imagine what could have happened to all these fabulous weavings if they had been left out there in the wild. Fortunately for us great collections are formed and often end up in public institutions for our enjoyment, enlightenment and education.