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Helen Collins Remembers Days At Railroad Restaurant

Posted 10/12/2017

By Pilar MartinHELEN Collins shows off some of her Harvey House collectibles.HELEN Collins shows off some of her Harvey House collectibles.

HALSTEAD – Helen Boese married Tom S. Collins on April 4, 1953. She was 17 years old.

Tom worked for the Santa Fe Railroad. The couple made their home with Tom’s mother in Newton. “I really didn’t like sitting at home doing nothing, so I told Tom I was going to find a job,” Helen said.

She found a job in an iconic American restaurant. Collins said Fred Harvey started his Harvey House restaurants after a bad experience as a passenger on the railroad. As a passenger, the train stopped so travelers could eat.

They were given 30 minutes, but the conductor blew the whistle after 15 minutes. Those passengers paid for the food but didn’t get to eat it.  Harvey found out the food was re-sold to the next group of passengers. He decided he would start a restaurant of his own.

Harvey first approached the Burlington-Northern railroad but they turned him down. He next went to the Santa Fe in Topeka, and they said yes. They said he could have the existing restaurant and they would remodel it to suit him. Harvey had the whole thing remodeled and opened his first Harvey House Restaurant in 1876.

Orignally Harvey hired men as waiters, but found out that was a mistake. Men would go out and party on Saturday night and not come in on Sunday. He fired all the men and hired women.

Harvey was very particular about the women he hired. His employment add read “Wanted: Young Women, 18 to 30 years of age, of good character, attractive and intelligent, as waitresses in Harvey Eating houses in the west. Good wages, with room and meals furnished.” The Harvey Girls received $17 a month salary.

Collins said those girls had to sign a contract to not get married for a year after being hired. The Harvey Girls also had to live on the premises in a dormitory-style setting and of course a curfew was in place in the evenings. There was even a housemother who kept the girls in line.

Collins said the restaurants started out as a way to serve railway passengers in between stops. “Conductors would hand out menus to passengers on the trains, and then the orders were called ahead so that everything would be ready when the train stopped.” Those diners only had 30 minutes to eat and get back on the train.

In Newton, the Harvey House restaurant originally opened in the Arcade hotel. The depot was then built across the street and Harvey moved in there.  After WWII, Harvey began hiring married women, and that’s how Collins was hired.

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