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The Harvey House is a remnant of the first hotel operated by Fred Harvey on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (AT&SF) rail line between Kansas City and Los Angeles. The restaurants and hotels Harvey operated played a significant role in the development of the American West in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The Harvey House in Florence, Kansas, provides a window into this institution.
The AT&SF rail line reached Florence in 1871. Five years later, four men from Florence obtained the contract to feed and house rail travelers passing through town, building the Clifton Hotel for this purpose. A few years later, AT&SF superintendent Charlie Morse asked Fred Harvey, who had been involved with the company since 1875, to buy out the Clifton’s owners in order to make the hotel more financially stable. Harvey immediately began to transform the Clifton Hotel into a showplace and culinary mecca. He sent his wife, Barbara, to Europe to purchase new furnishings, including black walnut furniture, fine china, silver tableware, and elegant linens. Remarkably, Harvey was also able to lure the renowned chef William H. Phillips from his position at Chicago’s Palmer House to become the chef in a small hotel in rural Kansas.
With Barbara Harvey’s interiors and William Phillips’s cuisine, the Florence outpost set the standard for all subsequent Harvey House restaurants. The little hotel in Florence quickly became a destination for vacationers as well as a stopover for rail travelers. In addition to first class lodging and fine dining, visitors enjoyed hunting excursions through the surrounding countryside. In 1879, after only two years of operation, Harvey undertook a major expansion of the facility, nearly doubling its size.
Harvey expanded his operations across the AT&SF rail lines, and by the time of his death in 1901, there were forty-five Harvey Houses. In the early twentieth century, however, the advent of dining cars and sleeping cars made rail-related restaurants and hotels less essential. The Harvey House in Florence served its last meal in 1900. The building, originally located on the south side of the rail line, remained vacant for a time and two of its sections were moved: the laundry building to a site adjacent to the Catholic Church, and the 1879 addition to a site on Main Street. Neither has survived. What remained of the hotel, what is now called Harvey House, was moved to a site directly across the railroad tracks. It served as a boarding house for many years and then as a private residence before being purchased in 1971 by the Florence Historical Society, which now operates the building as a museum.
This remaining portion is a 30 x 50-foot, two-story, wood-frame structure. A gable roof runs the long or north/south direction and one-story porches abut both the east and west sides. The first floor of the building is entered from the eastern porch slightly to the north of center. An office and sample rooms, where salesmen showed their wares, are located on the northern end with the dining room and kitchen on the southern end. The upper floor is arranged along a hallway running north/south, which gives access to eight sleeping rooms, one of which has become a bathroom. The building is furnished to give visitors a sense of its original appearance. One can imagine cowboys wearing the required jackets, borrowed from a collection provided for underdressed patrons, being served hearty meals by polite and neatly attired young women, the so-called Harvey Girls. Volunteers from the Florence Historical Society now serve meals for groups of up to 25 persons to replicate the dining experience of the original Harvey House.
Fried, Stephen. Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West– One Meal at a Time. New York: Bantam Books, 2010.
Pankratz, Richard, “Harvey House,” Marion County, Kansas. National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form, 1973. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
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