Harvey House in Florence, packed with a history that goes back almost 140 years, offers the opportunity to relive the early days of railroad travel.
Fifteen-year-old Fred Harvey became involved in restaurants in New York City after arriving in America in 1850.
He later went to work for railroads and was disgusted by lack of good food and lodging along the way.
He presented his idea of establishing trackside fine food to the Santa Fe, which liked his idea and leased to him the second floor of the railroad’s depot at Topeka.
The restaurant was so successful that the company suggested he buy the Clifton Hotel in Florence and operate it as a hotel and dining room.
Harvey bought the hotel in 1877. It was the first of a long line of hotels and restaurants along the Santa Fe Railroad, about one every 100 miles.
His Florence venture survives today as a museum and party facility.
Harvey redecorated the Florence hotel, installed coal oil lamps, built huge water fountains, and planted trees. His wife traveled to London and Ireland to purchase linens, china, silverware, and furniture.
Harvey hired a famous chef from Chicago to manage the Clifton. Vegetables, fruits, dairy products, and meats were purchased from local people and ranchers. All other supplies were delivered by the Santa Fe at no charge.
The Clifton opened in early 1878. In 1879, Harvey built an addition to it. When completed, the hotel measured 30 by 130 feet, making it the largest building in the west. Business was good. At least 2,300 guests lodged there in a six-month period. Along with the locals, people came from everywhere to eat at its dining room.
Waiters were mostly African-American men, but in 1883, Harvey took the advice of a friend and began to employ women between the ages of 19 and 30. They became known as Harvey Girls. They were hired and trained at Kansas City, then sent by train to where they were needed.
The young women worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week for a salary of $17.50 a month, plus room and board. They lived in the upper rooms of the hotel and were carefully supervised by a hotel matron.
Harvey Girls wore uniforms consisting of long, plain black skirts, and high-collared black, long-sleeved blouses covered with white bibs and long white aprons.
Their hair was tied back with a white ribbon and they wore black stockings and shoes. They were expected to be courteous, attentive, cheerful and quick. They also were required to sign a pledge saying they would not marry for one year.
That era ended in 1900 as trains began to have dining cars and Pullman sleeping cars. Fred Harvey managed the dining cars.
Harvey died in 1901, but his company continued to operate all of the dining cars on the Santa Fe until 1968.
In later years, part of the Clifton Hotel was demolished. The part that remained was moved to the museum’s present location to serve as a rooming house. Florence Historical Society was formed in 1971 and purchased the Clifton House, renovating it into a museum and dining room.
Judy Mills prepares some of the food and serves as chief waitress at
Florence Harvey House. She is assisted by Janet Robinson and Janice Waner. Shirley Grinstead sets tables, Linda Heath folds napkins and prepares food, Jean Shipman washes dishes, Marge Jackson cooks, Bob Harris gives historical presentations, and Margaret Harris works in the kitchen, mows lawns, and tends to flowers.
Edna Robinson is contact person for those who wish to eat at or tour the Florence Harvey House.
Dinner reservations and museum tours can be scheduled by calling (620) 878-4481. The elegant dining room seats 24 people. A minimum of 12 is required to reserve a dinner.
Robinson got her start as a volunteer by washing dishes in the kitchen. She soon became a member of the museum board and served as vice president.
Now 79, she serves as treasurer, cook, tour guide, and laundry person. Robinson said reunion classes and family groups are scheduled to tour the museum this summer.
An annual Harvey House picnic will be June 25. The Harvey House is located at 221 Marion St., across from Florence Community Garden.