SANTA FE, N.M. – New Mexico recognized the legacy of the Harvey Girls on Saturday, the thousands of women credited with helping transform the West by taking waitressing jobs along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway line.
Gov. Susana Martinez and the mayors of Santa Fe and Albuquerque declared the day as Harvey Girls Day. Harvey Girls was the nickname given women who began answering help wanted ads in the 1880s from Fred Harvey Co. establishments. According to historians, more than 100,000 women were waitresses in dining rooms at stops along what was then a new railway route.
Lesley Poling-Kempes, who published "The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West" in 1989, said these were ordinary women who took on extraordinary tasks for the terms of their employment.
"It was a terrifying ordeal in the beginning, certainly, for many of the young women who were coming out of small towns or off of small farms," Poling-Kempes said. "There were a lot of immigrant women. They needed to work, so they came out here."
Over the years, Poling-Kempes researched the history through interviews with former Harvey Girls across seven states who were in their 80s and 90s. She also relied on handwritten letters, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported (http://bit.ly/1FL2ha7 ).
The women were usually between ages 18 and 30. They typically signed contracts to work at least six months. Then they would have to go through training in Kansas City or Chicago before being sent to an unknown territory, according to researchers. Some of the places in New Mexico where Harvey Girls ended up working included La Fonda, a lodge and Harvey House in Santa Fe, as well as the Kachina Room restaurant at the old Albuquerque airport.
Katrina Parks, a filmmaker archiving material from former Harvey Girls, said one helped establish the New Mexico branch of the National Organization for Women. "I was very intrigued with this kind of feminist angle I felt could be explored," said Parks, who spent years making a documentary on them called "Opportunity Bound."
Harvey Girls typically had to work amid a social stigma, Poling-Kempes said. Some people equated a single woman working and living in a hotel with being a prostitute. They also drew attention because they were well-dressed and well-traveled. Besides earning wages, Harvey Girls got free railroad passes. Despite the stigma, their work allowed them to be independent and share money with their families.
"They saved many family farms. They'd buy clothes for younger brothers and sisters, and they were proud of this," Poling-Kempes said. "They were powerful women in this little, ordinary life of a waitress."