When Jackie Sigwing of Florence volunteered to update and maintain the City of Florence website, she had no idea the task would lead to a connection with an award-winning investigative journalist and essayist.
Stephen Fried is an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism and is a two-time winner of the National Magazine Award.
Fried was in the process of writing a book about Fred Harvey when he visited the Florence website, e-mailed Sigwing to get her phone number, and called her. He had done extensive research and needed some photos of the original Clifton Hotel in Florence.
The hotel was significant because it was the first “Harvey House,” a combination hotel and restaurant owned and operated by Fred Harvey along the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, which would later become the Santa Fe Railway.
Neva Robinson, a member of the Board of Directors of the Florence Historical Society, helped Sigwing access the Harvey House Museum, where she made digital copies of photos in the Fred Harvey collection and sent them to Fried. Two were later published in Fried’s book, “Appetite for America.” One is a photo of the Clifton Hotel in its heyday and one is a photo of three “Harvey girls” in uniform, taken at the Syracuse Harvey House.
Sigwing is credited in the book as a contributor.
Sigwing said she was not able to supply Fried with information he was seeking about a renowned cook who had come from Chicago to Florence, and later had disappeared, but she was excited about contributing to his work.
“I was thrilled to have gotten Fried’s e-mail in his search for the rare photo of the Florence Harvey House,” Sigwing said. “I Googled his name and found his website that describes his other books and investigative reporting he has done.
“After visiting with him several times and hearing the details he knew about our Harvey House, I could tell this book was going to be a huge thing. It is an incredibly detailed writing of the story of Fred Harvey.”
Fried’s book, “Appetite for America,” was published earlier this year. He subtitled it, “How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the Wild West.”
The 515-page hardcover book is meticulously researched and annotated and literally is a history of the development of the West from 1853 through 1971.
Fried develops the book in context with the economic and political happenings of the time, giving the reader a broader history lesson along the way.
He shows how Fred Harvey developed the first chain restaurants, chain hotels, and chain bookstores. Harvey also glamorized train travel and pioneered cultural tourism.
The Clifton Hotel
Fried devotes a full chapter to the development of the Harvey House in Florence.
He recounts that Fred Harvey had been managing a dining room at the Topeka depot in 1879 when he negotiated with the general manager of the AT&SF to take over more eating houses along the railroad in Kansas.
The first and most important one was in Florence.
“Florence was the primary meal stop for AT&F passengers in eastern Kansas and also attracted sportsmen, since the hunting and fishing nearby was spectacular,” Fried wrote.
He explained that Harvey risked almost half of his savings to buy a “fleabag” of an eating house at Florence and transform it into a high-end restaurant.
He brought in a renowned Chicago chef and turned it into a destination restaurant. Santa Fe executives, hunters, fishermen, and newspaper reporters converged on the place.
The meals were a hit with the local people as well as train passengers, but train passengers always took precedence over the locals.
Local fishermen, farmers, and hunters were paid top dollar for the meat and produce they provided for the restaurant.
The establishment became so popular that Fred Harvey expanded it, adding more dining space, offices, and hotel rooms.
He also named it The Clifton. A new sign was placed over the entrance, fountains were installed out front, and indoor plumbing was installed.
“Every Tuesday and Friday, the ladies of Florence can have use of the bath rooms at The Clifton Hotel,” the Florence Herald announced. “This will be a luxury which will be duly appreciated. All other days the bath rooms are open to gentlemen.”
In 1890, Fred Harvey bought a 750-acre ranch at Emporia and built a house on it. He used the ranch for family vacations and to provide produce for his business. He and William Allen White became close friends.
The standards of finery, service, food, and hygiene that Fred Harvey established at Florence were replicated in the future Harvey Houses that he built along the Santa Fe Railway from Missouri to California and in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas.
In a world where women were scarce, many of the girls Fred Harvey hired as waitresses later married local men. Known as Harvey girls, they were the first major female work force in America.
Fried details the entire history of the Fred Harvey business as it passed from one generation to the next. In an appendix, he describes a recent train trip he and his wife took along the Santa Fe railway, now a part of Amtrak. They bemoaned the breakdown of the standards Fred Harvey had set.
The couple passed through Florence in the night, and Fried mentions the remaining portion of The Clifton Hotel that area residents know as the Florence Harvey House.
At the Florence Harvey House, people can still dine and be served by Harvey girls in a restored Fred Harvey restaurant. They also can tour the museum and learn more about the man who started it all.
“Appetite for America” is available at the Marion City Library.