By H. Haveman
Gallup is a railroad town, created in 1881 out of the necessity for a railway headquarters along the southern transcontinental route. Named for David L. Gallup, paymaster for the railroad, ours is a city whose livelihood has been tied into the network of roads and rails, transporting people and goods to, from and throughout the Southwest. The relationship was, perhaps, never so obvious as in the earlier decades of the 1900s when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (now BNSF) and Route 66 ran parallel through the heart of Gallup, pumping rail and automobile travelers in and out. Between them stood El Navajo Hotel, built by the Fred Harvey Company in 1918, where travelers would fill their bellies and rest their heads, enjoying the stellar service for which Harvey Houses were known.
Mary Montoya was there in its heyday, and remembers the glamour of the building itself, the holiday parties, the prescribed uniform, and the rigid set of rules. She’s a sprightly 96-year-old who has spent most of her life in Gallup, and is one of the last living Harvey Girls.
Fred Harvey was an entrepreneur who seized an opportunity to improve on the quality of food and service offered to train passengers in the 1870s. His first restaurant in Topeka, Kansas proved so successful that he struck a deal with the Santa Fe Railway to manage eating houses in towns along their tracks, offering good food, good service, and good prices. Harvey Houses, with their staff of well-trained waitresses, called Harvey Girls, were regarded for their high standards for efficiency, cleanliness, and service, which drew rail travelers and made for a thriving business. Harvey became known as the man who brought civility to the Wild West, as well as the creator of the first restaurant chain.
Mary “Toki” Montoya came to Gallup when she was about twelve years old; her Japanese father was a cook at the coal mining camp in Gamerco. They arrived via El Paso, Texas, but joined many others who came to this area from Europe, Asia, and Mexico, to work on the railroad or to mine coal, creating a diverse Gallup community. Mary’s family lived in the Japanese camp; she attended Catholic school and learned to waitress as a young girl in several local cafés.
She recalls her first job, at the OK Café, which was owned by Hershey Miyamura’s parents, Yaichi and Tori. Tori called Mary by her Japanese name, Toki, and encouraged the shy girl to give a cup of coffee to a waiting customer. Mary hesitantly brought the steaming cup to the counter and then stood, frozen, not knowing what to do next. She laughs at the memory and about how much she learned in the years following, especially while working for the Fred Harvey Company.
Working as a Harvey Girl offered many women the chance to travel to unseen places, meet lots of people, and earn respectable wages. Harvey Girls were expected to wear their complete uniforms, cleaned and pressed, follow a strict set of serving rules, and abide by curfew if they were boarding employees. Mary remembers working her way up the ladder as a waitress, beginning by serving employees at the counter, then customers at the counter, then serving in the lunchroom. “Even if you thought you were the best waitress in Gallup, you had a lot to learn,” she recalls. “You started at the bottom.” Eventually, Mary became the head waitress at El Navajo, serving in the main dining room. She worked as a Harvey Girl for a total of ten years, never forgetting the experience and the thorough training she received.
El Navajo closed its doors in 1957 and was partly torn down, due, in part, to the widening of Route 66. Tourists no longer traveled the rails as frequently and Harvey Houses, literally, faced the wrong way – toward the tracks, rather than the road. At its peak, the Harvey Company operated an eating house or hotel every 100 miles of track along the Santa Fe line. Sadly, very few of the original Harvey Houses still exist today. The remains of El Navajo have been preserved and renovated. Now, the Gallup Cultural Center is a well-used community gathering place. It houses the Masters’ Gallery and Storyteller Museum, the Amtrak station, and Angela’s Café con Leche.
As for Mary Montoya, her work as a Harvey Girl became the foundation for a life in food service. After El Navajo closed, she began work at Gallup’s Ranch Kitchen. Working directly under the owner, she oversaw hiring, training, the operation of the gift shop, and payroll. Adopting some of Fred Harvey’s techniques, she was a stickler for shined shoes, combed hair, clean uniforms, and good customer service. Mary enjoyed thirty-four years at Ranch Kitchen and has maintained friendships with some of her former employees and customers. Often when she goes out, someone will recognize her from her days of service in local restaurants. “It’s good to be remembered,” she says.
Smiling, Mary says, “I’ve had a good life.” One with a family, two daughters, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and many memories. Her husband Louis, a well-liked city employee for years, was called the “Disneyland Kid” by family members for the yearly trips they’d take with all the kids – though it seemed that he always had the most fun. The walls of Mary’s home are adorned with photos of friends and family – more photos sit in albums and boxes on shelves at arm’s reach – representing years of blessing.
People no longer travel the rails, or even Route 66, like they used to. And Harvey Houses no longer provide comfortable lodging and warm food to voyagers. However, they are not forgotten. The Southwest was largely shaped by the railroad and the Harvey Houses that were strung along it. Similarly, though Mary’s time as a Harvey Girl didn’t last for long, it paved the way for a life of rewarding work.
Sources: Fred Harvey Houses of the Southwest by Richard Melzer, 2008