America’s tales about taming the Wild West rarely include women. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, more than 100,000 pioneering young women left home to work as waitresses in restaurants located on train platforms along the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway.
They were called “Harvey Girls” because they worked in the Harvey House restaurant chain started by Leavenworth entrepreneur Fred Harvey. These women later played an important role in World War II and helped transform society’s view of women’s work.
Filmmaker Katrina Parks tells their story in a new documentary called The Harvey Girls: Opportunity Bound, which premieres at the National Archives at Kansas City at 6 p.m. on Friday, June 21.
In 1883, Fred Harvey visited one of his restaurants in New Mexico, and found a lot of tension between former confederate soldiers and African American waiters. One of Harvey’s companions suggested that he bring in women to “civilize” the towns along the railway and “bring down the testosterone level,” according to Parks.
“For women, it was just this amazing opportunity to go West. I mean, there weren’t opportunities for women to go West if you were single,” Parks says. “You could leave home, you could live under protected circumstances. You could earn enough money to send home to your family. It became this radical thing for the time period.”
Parks began interviewing Harvey Girls in 2001, when she was just starting film school. She continued catching up with these women at conferences and special reunions that brought them together.
The Harvey Girls: Opportunity Bound tells the stories of some of these intelligent, high-spirited women, and how their experience as Harvey Girls contributed to their future careers and leadership roles. Parks sees them as a “precursor to the women’s movement.”
“I kind of realized that this documentary was the last opportunity, really, that America, the world would have to have these stories preserved for future generations,” Parks says.
A panel discussion will follow the screening with Katrina Parks, Stephen Fried, author of Appetite for America about Fred Harvey, Park University history professor Timothy Westcott, and Denise Morrison, director of collections at Union Station/Kansas City Museum.
The screening is in conjunction with an exhibit at the National Archives called Fred Harvey: The Man, the Brand, and the American West.