Stephen Fried wants Kansas City to remember the Harvey family


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Freddy Harvey, the heir to the Harvey House empire, lived here at 35th and Locust until a plane crash in 1936. It was also the death knell for Kansas City as the company's headquarters.
  • Freddy Harvey, the heir to the Harvey House empire, lived here at 35th and Locust until a plane crash in 1936. It was also the death knell for Kansas City as the company's headquarters.

Kansas City just can't get enough of author Stephen Fried. The Pennsylvania-based journalist attracted a standing room-only crowd last year at the Kansas City National Archives when he gave a presentation based on his hardcover biography, Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the Wild West.

Fred Harvey (1835-1901) wasn't just the first truly great restaurateur in the United States, he created a business that was a major Kansas City corporation for the first half of the 20th century. "The problem," says Fried, "is that the story of Harvey family has been all but erased from Kansas City history."

Fried is trying to correct that. He'll return to town on Thursday, May 19 to sign the softcover version of his book and speak at the Central branch of the Kansas City Public Library.

The softcover edition of Appetite for America was released to bookstores last week. "It has a slightly different subtitle," says Fried. "It's now called Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West -- One Meal At A Time."

Fred Harvey mansion, Leavenworth
  • Fred Harvey mansion, Leavenworth
Stephen Fried's 2010 biography traces the life of English-born Fred Harvey from his arrival in America in 1850 as a 15-year-old to his death, as the millionaire owner of the first recognizable restaurant chain in 1901.

During Fried's visit to Kansas City, he'll also make an appearance in Leavenworth, where Harvey lived for much of his adult life and where the Fred Harvey mansion still stands. The 19th-century home, turned into the Cushing Hospital Dormitory in the 1940s, has been undergoing a very slow renovation by the city of Leavenworth for years. "It's a very small town." says Fried. "And a very big project."

Fred Harvey, says Fried, like many businessmen based in Leavenworth, moved their company headquarters to Kansas City when it became obvious that it was going to be this city -- and not Leavenworth or St. Joseph -- destined to become a major train hub and metropolis. "But the businessmen who lived in Leavenworth, continued to live there."

Fred Harvey's son Ford, who inherited the restaurant and hotel business and built it into a major corporation, moved to Kansas City. (He actually ran the Fred Harvey Company longer than his father did).

At one time, Ford Harvey and his wife Judy lived directly across Gilham Road from Harvey's top executive, David Benjamin. "They would frequently walk to work at Union Station together with Ford's dog," says local historian Tom Taylor. "And then Ford Harvey would put the dog on the streetcar for the ride back home." (Both the Ford Harvey and David Benjamin mansions were razed in the late 1960s).

"The Harvey family and Harvey executives helped build Kansas City," says Stephen Fried. "When Kansas City's mass transit system was in receivership, Ford Harvey saved it. Judy Harvey was a major philanthropist to Catholic charities and David Benjamin was a major Jewish philanthropist. You can't underestimate the importance of the Harvey family to life in Kansas City. They were the center of a lot of universes."

Fried says that Judy Harvey made several important donations to help create the American Indian collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. But the current curator of that collection, Gaylord Torrence, says that while members of the Harvey family did make a few significant donations to that collection, a collection of over 300 American Indian objects -- including Pueblo pottery and Navajo textiles -- was actually purchased from the Fred Harvey Company by the Nelson-Atkins Museum in 1933.

Stephen Fried believes that the Harvey family would have continued to be major local philanthropists if fate hadn't intervened: the heir to the family business, Freddy Harvey, and his wife Elizabeth Drage Harvey were killed in an airplane crash in 1936. Freddy's sister Kitty was not permitted to run the business and her uncle, Byron Harvey, moved the company headquarters to Chicago. The Fred Harvey company continued to have offices in Union Station and operated food service venues in the station until the late 1960s.

By this point, however, dining in train stations had lost its allure. The new big name in chain restaurants was Howard Johnson's, which had clean, casual dining rooms along the major highways. "Howard Johnson took everything that Fred Harvey had created and modernized it for the automobile era," says Fried. "He did a great job of stealing the Harvey company's lunch."

Stephen Fried will speak at the Central branch of the Kansas City Public Library at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 19th. Reservations are strongly encouraged for the presentation and can be made by clicking here.


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