Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER 13

LIKE A HOUSE AFIRE

FRED WAS AMAZED BY HOW QUICKLY HIS EATING HOUSE BUSINESS had grown and how lucrative it had become. He knew that flawless service and fresh ingredients would be a revelation in the West, that the act of providing freshly brewed coffee any time of the day or night was enough to get him elected mayor in most towns. The Santa Fe was still primarily an ambitious regional rail line connecting Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico—it was far from a major player in the railroad business. But he was already making a small fortune.

His personal profits from the eating houses alone were now more than $50,000 ($1.1 million) a year. That was after all expenses, and at the time there were no federal, state, or local taxes, personal or business. His company didn’t own any real estate—the railroad had bought back the hotel in Florence—and he refused to incur any other significant debt. Taking a lesson from his very first bosses in America at Smith & McNell’s in New York, he paid for everything immediately with cash, never asking for credit and never extending it to anyone else. So the company’s profits were all cash—and all his.

He plowed some of it back into the eating house business, and did some investing in conservative stocks and bonds. He also made private loans, often to people who were far wealthier than he was but whose fortunes weren’t quite as liquid. It was a little like the maître d’ at a pricey restaurant lending tip money to his best customers, but Fred had long since accepted the social and class oddities that came with making a lot of money in the nascent service industry.

Much of his money, however, was invested in the cattle business, which he had grown to love. He always stopped at the ranch during eating house inspection trips, to check up on his cowboys and his cattle, and often sent Dave, too. Owning the XY herd made Fred feel like a genuine American frontier entrepreneur, and raising cattle in western Kansas also had the feel of a family business, especially now that he and his brother-in-law Jack Hardesty shared winter grazing land on New Mexico’s Cimarron Range. Fred enjoyed spending time with his brother-in-law, which was a good thing, because Sally was always looking for any excuse to visit her sister Maggie—especially after the Hardestys named their baby daughter, Sallie, after her.

Fred’s partners in the cattle business found they didn’t share his delight in ranching, so he offered to buy them out. The XY had doubled in size to twenty thousand head of cattle, plus thousands of horses and valuable grazing land. The partners’ value to Fred had also increased. William Strong now ran the railroad, and the other partner, C. W. Smith, had become a Santa Fe vice president—so it was important that everyone feel good about the deal. Fred offered to pay each of them $50,000 ($1.1 million), more than twelve times what they originally invested five years before, and more than he had ever gambled on any investment in his life. He paid the first $11,000 ($244,000) in cash; the rest was paid by auctioning “all marketable fat cattle” in the herd and then giving his partners all the proceeds. Within sixteen months, they were paid in full.

Not long after buying out the herd, however, he decided to move it because the cattle industry in western Kansas was coming under fire from families staking out farms along the Arkansas River. Farmers and cowmen had mutually exclusive dreams of the American West. The farmers, many of whom were brought to Kansas by the Santa Fe with promises of cheap land and free seed, did not appreciate cattle trampling through their crops—nor did they want their sons to grow up to be cowboys. The railroads had spent a great deal of money attracting both ranchers and farmers, and controlled more than enough trackside land for both. Since it was easier to ask a cattleman to graze his herd elsewhere than to move a farm, the railroad encouraged ranchers like Fred Harvey to shift their operations farther west. Fred negotiated a deal to buy 100,000 acres of grazing land in Colorado, near the town of Granada, for $70,000 ($1.5 million) and moved the XY herd there. This made the farmers in western Kansas so ecstatic that for years afterward they actually taught their kids a little song about the departure of Fred’s crew: “It was the tenth of May, God bless the day, when the XY cowboys went away.”

THE MOST VISIBLE sign of Fred’s newfound wealth was the home he bought his family in Leavenworth—a stately mansion on a hill at the corner of 7th and Olive streets, one of the most fashionable sections of town. It was just down the street from the lavish home of bank president and Kansas Central Railroad executive Lucien Scott, who was so excited about being the first person in Leavenworth with an indoor shower that he had the plumber leave all the pipes exposed so his bathroom would cause the maximum sensation.

The new Harvey house was built of locally mined cream-colored limestone in the Second Empire style. It had twelve large rooms and seven fireplaces, multiple porches and Gothic dormers, and intriguing masonry work along the roof and around the entrances, including a carved lion’s head in the archway of the front door. Each window in the house was equipped with fully retractable wooden shutters, and every doorway had a delicately etched transom window. The dramatically curved main staircase began with an elaborately sculpted newel post topped with a large wooden acorn—which looked as if it were almost daring one of the Harvey children to knock it off. The mansion also had a two-story carriage house, stables, and more than an acre of land for the kids and dogs to romp over.

Fred bought the house from Harvey and Mary Rush, who owned the major wheat mill in Leavenworth and one of the largest grain elevators in the West. (Their main competitor across the river, the R. T. Davis Mill Company in St. Joseph, was the birthplace of Aunt Jemima’s self-rising pancake mix.) Fred paid $24,956 ($565,000) for the house itself, and Sally so loved the way Mary Rush had decorated the place that they also bought much of the furniture and draperies.

The house had expansive living, dining, and cooking areas on the first floor, and bedrooms for Fred, Sally, the children, and Sally’s mother on the multilevel second floor. Most of the third floor, however, was Fred’s domain. He kept an office up there, next to the billiard room. He also had a large library space, which he needed because his collection of books had grown enormous over the years, and he continued to devour volumes on history, medicine, politics, art, virtually anything. His shelves contained everything from Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms: A Guide to Correct Writing—the businessman’s bible, with copies of every form and style of letter imaginable—to several volumes of the complete works of Shakespeare, bound volumes of the Illustrated London News, a popular British parody of Samuel Pepys’s diary called Manners and Customs of Ye Englishe, works of Keats, Poe, Fielding, Coleridge’s epic Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and nearly a dozen different Bibles.

BUSINESS WAS WONDERFUL everywhere except at the Montezuma, which had become a huge problem, a Victorian white elephant. During a recent visit to the hotel, Dave had reported back to Fred in utter disbelief: “There are not even 20 at the Montezuma,” he lamented, “and people going there to stay a month only remain a day or two.”

The reason was unclear. It could have been the location, but many felt the Montezuma had an image problem. The Santa Fe had apparently been far too successful advertising the health resort as an actual medical facility—so everyone assumed it was full of really sick people. One Opticwriter noted that the public seemed to believe the hotel was filled with “men without noses and ears and otherwise horribly disfigured from disease.” It proved hard to convince people that most of the guests were perfectly healthy tourists—and that the “invalids” were generally not contagious.

Then, on the bitterly cold Thursday morning of January 17, 1884, Kittie Philbin thought she smelled smoke.

Kittie was the most popular housekeeper at the Montezuma, and had been preparing for weeks to take her first vacation since the hotel opened. Everything she owned was packed in her suitcases, including her life savings of $600 ($13,600), which was hidden beneath her clothes. The housekeeping staff had just finished eating lunch when an explosion was heard throughout the hotel and smoke started rising from underneath the main lobby. The fire alarms were sounded, and Kittie rushed through the corridors knocking on as many doors as she could, hurrying everyone out into the frigid winter air. Since the Montezuma was barely one-quarter full, with only sixty-two guests sprinkled among its 270 rooms, everyone was able to escape safely.

All the hydrants were frozen shut, but that probably didn’t matter. The largest wood structure in the country, the Montezuma was a veritable tinderbox. And no building could have survived the freak accident in the hotel’s volatile lighting system—which employed vapor from a large pool of naphtha (a crude form of petrochemical today used mostly by fire jugglers and campers with portable stoves) mixed with forced air to fuel the jets. Since naphtha was full of impurities, there were traps under the main lobby of the hotel that periodically had to be emptied of highly flammable gunk. Two men emptying the traps that day were working by the light of a small “spirit lamp”—a precursor to the oil lamp that also burned volatile liquid. Vapors from the gunk in the traps caught fire, and the workmen panicked and ran—leaving the system to explode in flames fueled by the naphtha.

The resulting inferno, according to the Optic, “required a whole dictionary of adjectives to describe.” With the guests out of danger, volunteer firefighters reportedly spent most of their time trying to save, or loot, the contents of the wine cellar—leaving the birds and animals in the hotel’s aviary and zoo to roast alive. One hotel historian joked that “enough liquor was ‘liquidated’ at the scene of the fire to have quenched the blaze had it been properly applied.” It took less than forty minutes for the entire structure to burn to the ground. All that remained were two charred chimneys.

Fred did not rush to visit the ruins of the Montezuma. While the hotel had been an amazing opportunity and had given his company a major boost in national credibility, its creation had bled him dry emotionally and physically, and its management was bleeding him and the Santa Fe dry financially. There would be an insurance settlement, and the Santa Fe immediately hired the rising Chicago architecture firm of Burnham & Root to redesign the hotel. (Daniel Burnham was already claiming the Montezuma had been built in the wrong place.) But the railroad would have to find someone else to direct the rebuilding. It would not be Fred.

In the meantime, he wanted to make sure his best hotel employees did not feel abandoned. It was the right thing to do and also good business. He immediately sent a telegram to Kittie Philbin.

Come to my home,” it said, “it is yours also.”

Three days after the fire, Kittie was on a train headed for Kansas with $60 ($1,360) in her pocket. The other housekeepers at the Montezuma had taken up a collection to help replace her life savings.

AS FRED’S BUSINESS GREW, he became even more reliant on his protégé Dave Benjamin, who was empowered to make decisions in Fred’s absence and oversaw all day-to-day operations from the Kansas City office—for the eating house business as well as the ranch. As Dave’s star rose, Fred’s original partner in the restaurants, food czar Bill Phillips, decided it was time to move on. It may have been jealousy: Dave, a much younger man, was given a deal similar to his, with a one-eighth share of the company’s growing profits, and enjoyed Fred’s trust. But most likely, the problem was that Fred’s business with the Santa Fe had grown in a different direction than Phillips had hoped. A longtime city hotel man, he had been most interested in grand, unique properties like the Montezuma. But Fred’s future was clearly in medium-size depot eating houses and hotels.

Some time after the Montezuma burned, the name of Bill Phillips suddenly disappeared from news stories about Fred’s company. The job of culinary czar for the growing chain was given to thirty-five-year-old Victor Vizzetti, whom Fred and Dave considered the best young chef in the system. They had found him at the Clarendon Hotel in Leadville, Colorado, where he was a line cook, and started him in the kitchen at their smallest eating house in Wallace, New Mexico—where he quickly became known, in Dave’s words, for serving “the best meal on the road.” He was also a workhorse—when they had staffing problems at western eating houses, he would sometimes be called upon to cook meals at two houses on the same day, hopping the express trains back and forth.

Vizzetti was British born but Italian in ancestry, and had trained in Italy. He immediately began importing Italian chefs, and some Germans as well, making the staff more international and the cooking even more diverse. Up to this point, restaurants had typically brought foreign chefs to America to re-create classic European and British cuisines. But Fred and Vizzetti were equally interested in Americanizing certain international dishes—as well as the more distinctively regional dishes so that they were more palatable to a broader range of eating house patrons. The best cuts of meat and chicken were used to make stews and other dishes normally created from lesser cuts or leftovers. Authentically exotic spices were used, but toned down a bit.

Fred also brought his buddy Byron Schermerhorn into the business full-time. The Captain had been running the Brink’s Chicago City Express, mentoring the founder’s son as he built what was to become one of the best-known businesses in America: the Brink’s Armored Car company, forever synonymous with secure delivery of cash and valuables. Fred now hired Byron as a full-time personnel manager for all the eating houses—a position requiring almost constant travel—and gave him a small piece of the company’s profits.

In fact, Byron’s deal was similar to Dave’s—although nobody would mistake the two top executives. Dave was solid; Dave was trustworthy; Dave would take a bullet for Fred Harvey. Byron was the boss’s oddball friend whom the employees more or less endured. Even the press found him difficult. During Byron’s visit to Las Vegas after his promotion, the Optic said he “reigns over all the employees of Fred Harvey and governs them with a meek and lowly hand … This person has a big heart, a large head and feet in proportion. If he don’t like this item, we are glad of it.”

ALTHOUGH FRED HAD now built an excellent team, he was not certain how much longer he would be well enough to lead it. His health, cyclically precarious, was not improving, and he had to be realistic about his age: He would soon be fifty, then an age that, for most Americans, was the beginning of the end. So he felt forced to make a painfully difficult decision.

He told his son Ford that he would have to quit college and start learning the business.

Ford had grown into a fine young man—bright, clever, passionate, and almost too good-looking to be a Harvey, with his wavy brown hair, strong cleft chin, and engaging, wide-set brown eyes. One family friend called him “the handsomest and most glamorous person I ever saw,” and he never hid his bone-dry wit, even signing his five-year-old sister’s autograph book “your Crass old brother, Ford.” Now in his second year at Racine College in Wisconsin, he was winning award after award for his academics and enjoying the chance to explore nearby Milwaukee and Chicago. The last thing he wanted to do was to quit school. But his father insisted.

Fred claimed he wanted Ford to learn the business from the bottom up. But he had another agenda as well, because he didn’t send his son down to Kansas City to take a menial office job. Instead, he made Ford move back to Leavenworth and shadow him every day—at work as well as at home. While this was certainly an opportunity for the young man to learn his father’s ways, it was also an excuse to have another Harvey man in the house in case, as Fred worried, his poor health left him incapacitated.

So while his younger sister Minnie was away at boarding school in the East, Ford found himself, at age nineteen, trapped in his parents’ new house in Leavenworth with the kids—two younger sisters and a kid brother—his non-English-speaking grandmother, and a pack of aging dogs.

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