Harvey Girls to stage fund-raiser for museum
This Saturday, a Tonganoxie "Harvey Girl" will wear her 1890's-style long black dress and white apron as she serves beverages to diners at "An Evening With the Harvey Girls" in Leavenworth.
Karen Meredith, a former employee of the Santa Fe and Burlington Northern railways, retired from railroad work a few years back.
But her interest in the railroad continues.
Meredith, who with her husband, Don, recently moved to Tonganoxie, collects railroad memorabilia. And she knows her railroad history -- particularly when it comes to the Harvey Girls.
In the early days of the railroad, dining cars didn't exist.
"Passengers either had to bring their own food or get out at whistle stop restaurants," Meredith said. "The food was typically served by a sweaty man in a dirty apron -- women typically didn't do that kind of job back then."
So, she said, Fred Harvey decided to open a railroad restaurant and provide fine dining for travelers.
At the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, he found enthusiasm for his idea.
"On a handshake he agreed to open a restaurant in Topeka, which was the beginning of the Fred Harvey empire," Meredith said.
The restaurant, on the second floor of the Topeka depot, included white tablecloths, china and silver.
"He made it nice and a lot of the townspeople would come there to eat as well," Meredith said.
Harvey continued, hiring single women, ages 18 to 30. He offered a salary, which at one time, Meredith said, was $17.50 a month plus tips. And he housed the women in dormitories overseen by house mothers.
And, Meredith explained, Harvey chose to call the young women "Harvey Girls," rather than waitresses.
Meredith first portrayed a Harvey Girl in 1992, when she and co-workers volunteered to help at a Topeka railroad celebration.
Meredith's husband, Don, a retired school band teacher, said he enjoys watching his wife's transformation when she dresses as a Harvey Girl.
Karen even carries herself differently when wearing her floor-length dress, which buttons up the back and has puffed sleeves, Don said.
Their house, decorated with prints of trains moving through the mountains, railroad collection plates and other railroad memorabilia, shows their ongoing interest in railroads. In fact, a bedroom at their house is dedicated to their train collection.
Through the years, Don has supported his wife's enthusiasm for trains. In fact, he's been known to dress in costume himself, donning bib overalls for the engineer look.
And, he's learned to accept the fact that trains always matter.
"When she hears a train whistle, it's let's go," Don said, chuckling.