All Aboard

In the expansive Hamilton Galleries on the first floor of the Denver Art Museum is a glorious show, Inventing the Southwest: The Fred Harvey Company and Native American Art, which highlights a dazzling array of American Indian art. The Fred Harvey Company was a hotel and restaurant chain in the Southwest, and each of the company's hotels featured a gift shop that sold Indian curios--and the Indian mystique.

The Harvey exhibit was organized by the Heard Museum in Phoenix, a principal beneficiary of the largesse of the Harvey Company when the last of its holdings were distributed in 1978. The Arizona institution received most of the best material, with Santa Fe's International Folk Art Museum sharing in the bounty. The show traces the Harvey Company's history with photographs, pottery, jewelry, baskets and textiles, as well as period and contemporary accounts of the operation. Selections were made by two Heard staffers, research associate Kathleen Howard and curator Diana Pardue, who scouted the nation for objects related to the Harvey Company. Pieces in the show have been loaned by the Heard, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, as well a number of other collections both public and private.

As visitors enter the Hamilton rooms, they encounter a hand-tinted photo mural of a line of train engines parked in the Los Angeles station yard. Perched on the front of the trains are socialites in evening gowns and tuxedos, along with the trainmen in their greasy overalls; the photo is meant to symbolize the great social changes wrought by the railroads that opened up the American West. Next to the mural is a small display of American Indian artifacts, including a remarkable 1885 Navajo textile that combines the traditional Germantown pattern with a train motif across the middle--literally marking the intersection of the Navajo culture and the dominant culture of the United States.

The origins of the Harvey Company are noted with a portrait of its English-born founder, Fred Harvey, who immigrated as a teenager to the United States in the 1850s. Working first as a dishwasher, Harvey eventually opened his own restaurant at the train station in Topeka, Kansas, in 1876. Food and accommodations were in short supply in the West, and Harvey set up an innovative relationship with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad to provide food for railroad passengers, both in his restaurants and in Harvey dining cars. To say the least, his idea caught on, and he soon possessed an empire that included 26 restaurants, 16 hotels and a fleet of dining cars. The Harvey Company became the first hotel chain in America.

It may seem that this success was a foregone conclusion given the Western expansion of the time, but Harvey faced a formidable obstacle: fear of Indians. Many considered Indians to be murderous savages. (Here in Denver, for example, popular anti-Indian sentiment led to the elimination of proposed Indian braves from the cast of bronze characters in the "Pioneer's Monument," a 1910 piece by Paris-based American sculptor Frederick MacMonnies that still stands at the Civic Center. But no public outcry met the unveiling in 1918, less than a decade later, of Alexander Phimister Proctor's "Equestrian Indian," also at the Civic Center.) During the first twenty years of the twentieth century, the popular image of Indians changed from one of ruthless warriors to peaceful artisans--and the Harvey Company played a significant part in this transformation.

The company needed to battle negative Indian stereotypes not as a political act but to ensure that its business succeeded. If people thought of Indians as dangerous, they wouldn't come West and they wouldn't stay in the Harvey hotels.

So the company set about recasting the Indian image and that of the West. It recruited young, single women from the East and Midwest to staff its hotels and restaurants. The young women wore demure black and white uniforms that looked something like Pilgrim's dresses, and photos of them were published widely. The idea, according to Nancy Blomberg, DAM's Native Arts curator and a research contributor to the show, was to communicate that "if these girls are safe, you, the tourist, will be, too." These women were so famous in the first half of the century that a movie, The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland and Ray Bolger, was made by MGM in 1946. The musical features the Tin Pan Alley standard "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer.

Across from the display devoted to the Harvey girls is a showcase that features the AT&SF dining-car china, which was designed by the Harvey Company's resident designer and architect Mary Jane Colter, and a standing bas-relief figure of one of the Harvey girls. What's interesting about this small and beautiful statuette is that it has been made using traditional Zuni techniques. The piece, dating from 1948, is composed of stone inlay and hammered silver and is the work of Zuni Pueblo master Leo Poblano.