Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Latimer Hits Another Harvey House Homerun

With the new year comes the opportunity to pick out some great new books to read. Writer Rosa Latimer has offered a one-two punch with her second and third offering in the Harvey House series, spotlighting the Harvey Houses of New Mexico and Kansas. These are exceptionally interesting reads.

Rosa, for those who haven't read your first book, please give us a recap of what Harvey Girls were and how you became interested in them.
When Fred Harvey established restaurants along the Santa Fe RR in the late 19th Century, it was very difficult to find a staff that could uphold his standards. Mr. Harvey began to recruit “young educated women of good character” using classified ads in women’s magazines and large newspapers in the northeast and midwest. This was the beginning of a business organization that would come to employ over 100,000 women as waitresses known as Harvey Girls. My grandmother was a Harvey Girl in New Mexico and as I began to research her experience I realized this was an immensely under-told part of our country’s history as well as women’s history.

Fred Harvey was quite an innovator. What were some of the advances in hospitality services he pioneered that we now take for granted?

Fred Harvey was the first to require men to wear coats in his dining rooms and kept extra coats on hand in various sizes to accommodate any  gentlemen who came to dine without a coat. He was also the first to feature a “blue plate special” in his restaurants. This daily low-priced complete meal was originally served on a blue-patterned china plate in Harvey Houses. Harvey Houses were actually the first chain restaurants so just as there are certain things we expect at any chain restaurant today, the service, quality of food and the clean, well-appointed surroundings of Harvey Houses were the same throughout the system.   

Your first book focused on the Harvey Houses of Texas. Besides proximity, what were your reasons for writing about Harvey Houses in New Mexico?I actually intended to write about New Mexico first so I could tell the story of my grandmother; however, as I got into the research I realized there was nothing specific documenting this part of Texas history. The publisher also liked the idea of the Texas book first and as you know, what your publisher thinks is very important! So as soon as the Texas book was released I began work in earnest on New Mexico Harvey Girl stories.

In how many states were Harvey Houses located and what are the publisher's plans for future books?

Nine states: Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California plus a large Harvey restaurant and bar in Chicago’s Union Station. “Harvey Houses of Kansas” was released earlier this month and I think my next “Harvey House” book will probably be Arizona. If the interest in these books continues to hold up, I suppose I’ll cover the other states except for Colorado. There were only three Harvey Houses in that state making it difficult to produce a book on the subject.

The new  book has been very well received in New Mexico, which has led to a lot of personal appearances there. Any surprises or stories you'd care to share about the experiences of promoting this new book?

One surprise has been Las Vegas, NM where there were two Harvey Houses. So far in my research I haven’t found another town that had more than one Harvey House. But, that wasn’t the surprise, because obviously I knew that when I wrote the book! What has surprised me is that I found myself caught up in a large wave of interest in Fred Harvey in this Northern New Mexico town and it now extends to Santa Fe, Albuquerque and further into Southern New Mexico. At the time I was diving into research, a group bought the Castaneda, the trackside Harvey House in Las Vegas, with plans to restore it and Las Vegas is fully behind their efforts. I’ve met a large group of interesting, fun folks that I now consider friends – turns out we have others things in addition to Harvey history in common! Las Vegas is a vibrant art town and there are over 900 buildings on the historical register. I may sound like a Chamber of Commerce rep, but I would encourage your readers to put this on their list of fun places to visit. And, you MUST stop by Pedro’s Baker while you’re there – the best!

Speaking of promotion, many people think that authoring a book is where the job begins and ends. We know that writing the book and getting it published is actually only the beginning. Then the hard work starts. Take us inside the world of book promotion. What are the things you most enjoy and what are the biggest challenges?

You are so right, Bear! This is something I stress in my Writers’ Workshops – the promotion of a book ultimately falls to the writer. My publisher is extremely helpful and has a staff to help schedule and make contacts for book signings and presentations. However, a big part of my job is to maintain interest in my books. No one can sell your book as well as you can nor has the same, strong interest in getting this done. One challenge is that often you have no idea if an event will actually sell books for you. I’ve spoken to fairly large groups and only sold a few books. On the other hand, I’ve spoken to small groups in small-town museums and everyone there bought a book. However, pretty much in every circumstance I meet someone very interesting and/or learn some new piece of Fred Harvey information or have a genuinely wonderful experience interacting with new people! Bottom line: my purpose in writing these books is to preserve and share the stories of individuals who worked for Fred Harvey. The promotion of the books is an extension of that purpose.

In addition to being an author, you are also a book shop owner. Has being away from Ruby Lane Books in Post, TX, during promotional tours created any problems for you?

This does present some difficult decisions. Because my store is a small, independent operation I don’t have a staff to take over when I’m gone so I close the store. I realize I probably lose business and miss making new book-friendly people, but that is simply the choice I have to make. I like to believe it is sort of a “wash:” When I’m away I’m not selling in the store, but perhaps I sell books on the road. And, I really do love to travel so that experience helps balance things.

Speaking of Ruby Lane Books, you recently had a celebrity stop by, who just happens to be one of my all-time favorite entertainers. Tell us about that.

Yes, I did!  Late one afternoon Michael Martin Murphy stopped in on a trip between Fort Worth and New Mexico. I was plenty excited because he is also one of my all-time favorites. He shopped and visited for about an hour-and-a-half – he’s such a nice, talented guy!

Earlier you discussed future Harvey House books. Is there a particular state's Harvey Houses that pose particular challenges to write about? Is the history of the Houses in various states equally well-preserved?

I have been surprised by the three books I’ve published – Texas, New Mexico and Kansas. The basic history is the same although I tried to present it in a different way in each book, yet the personal stories and accounts particular to each state were very different. This is my first encounter with the different “personalities” of individual states. Even as I try to explain it to you, it is difficult yet I experienced it profoundly when in the midst of writing. Perhaps this is why state’s rights in governing are so important? Now I’m getting into an area that I really don’t know much about so maybe I’ll keep this in mind and better discuss it after a few more books!

As we've discussed before, when you head to Union Station in Kansas City, Missouri, which is the Mother Church of Harvey Houses, I'm hoping you need a couple of assistants...that being my wife, Caryl, and me to tag along. That is an amazing building and was home to the first Harvey Restaurant. There's still a Harvey House there, but I know it's not actually part of the original chain. Who owns the Harvey House name now and what has been their response to the books? 

As far as I know, the name Harvey House is up for grabs. I don’t think that name is owned by anyone. After Fred Harvey’s death in 1901, his son, Ford, became the president of the company and at that time adopted the company name “Fred Harvey.” This was unusual as it was not “The Fred Harvey Company” – just “Fred Harvey.” The company logo was Fred Harvey’s signature slightly altered to make it more graphically pleasing and for many, many years Harvey employees continued to say, “I work or worked for Fred Harvey.” In 1968 the still family-owned company, Fred Harvey, became a subsidiary of Amfac, Inc. Through a merger in the early 1990s, all that remained of the Fred Harvey company—El Tovar and Bright Angel Lodge at the Grand Canyon—became part of Xanterra, the largest parks concession management company in the United States. And I would love to have you and Caryl join me on a research trip to Union Station in Kansas City, Missouri. Perhaps the next book should be “Harvey Houses of Missouri?” Although there were only eleven Harvey House locations Kansas City is where the Harvey offices were and where many young women had their personal interviews before being sent to their first job as a Harvey Girl.

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