One of the city's famous residents of the past will once again be celebrated in Leavenworth this weekend.
The Leavenworth County Historical Society and National Fred Harvey Museum here will together host a film showing and roundtable discussion at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the Riverfront Community Center in conjunction with an exhibit at the National Archives in Kansas City, Mo., detailing the life and business ventures of Fred Harvey and the release of “Opportunity Bound.” The exhibit and the new film, directed and produced by California-based Katrina Parks for American Public Television, are about Harvey's rise to fame and prosperity as the creator of the Harvey House chain of restaurants that grew alongside the rise of transnational railway travel in the U.S. in the early 20th century and the “Harvey Girls” who served as sort of ambassadors for the business, which grew along the route of the Atchison, Topeka, Santa Fe railroad through the southwestern United States.
Harvey's legacy is tied to some extent to Leavenworth ― he is buried here in Mount Muncie Cemetery, and the house that was his longtime residence here is under renovations, to be opened as the National Fred Harvey Museum.
But it is on those Harvey Girls ― dressed in characteristic black dresses and frilly white aprons ― that Parks focuses in her new documentary.
She said the story fascinated her since visiting Belen, New Mexico, as a student at the University of New Mexico.
“I heard that over 100,000 women had been Harvey Girls and I was really fascinated by it,” she said.
At the time, Parks said the most high-profile representation of those women was the 1946 Judy Garland musical “The Harvey Girls.”
“While that film was really great, I wanted something kind of in-depth and personal,” she said.
That was in 1998. In 2001, Parks said she began tracking down and interviewing the remaining Harvey Girls, those who had donned the crisp white apron at some point between the late 19th and early to mid-20th century. Intermittently for a period of several years, she attended various reunions of the Harvey Girls and collected more interviews. Parks said she also drew on Stephen Fried's “Appetite for America,” a chronicle of the rise of the Harvey House brand and various historical documents.
Though stories from those Harvey Girls seemed to differ from decade to decade, Parks said the interviewees did have some common experiences.
“One of the threads was the very high standards that the Harvey Girls were held to,” she said, from the way food was served to their immaculate uniforms.
Taken together, Parks said the stories in “Opportunity Bound” also help paint a “great portrait of our country growing up,” and the role that both Fred Harvey and the Harvey Girls played in that transition.
Page 2 of 2 - “It was really one of the few ways women could move West, be single and be independent,” she said. “These women always identified as Harvey Girls. I really felt like it opened the doors to the workplace for women across the board for the county, because it gave these women a real professional identity and showed other generations that they too could be independent and have jobs and move.”
The Leavenworth County Historical Society and the National Fred Harvey Museum in Leavenworth will partner for a showing of “Opportunity Bound” beginning at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the Riverfront Community Center, 123 Esplanade St. in Leavenworth for a $3 suggested donation. Parks, Fried, Dr. Tim Westcott, history professor at Park University, and Denise Morrison, director of collections at Union Station/Kansas City Museum, will participate in a roundtable discussion following the film. The Carroll Mansion, 1128 Fifth Ave., and the National Fred Harvey Museum, Seventh and Olive streets, in Leavenworth will both be open for tours and to display various Harvey artifacts.
The National Archives in Kansas City's exhibit “Fred Harvey: The Man, the Brand and the American West” is open now at 400 W. Pershing Road in Kansas City, Mo. The archives will host the premiere of “Opportunity Bound” at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Archives.