Recalling Harvey Girl days

Helen A. Collins talks about a crate that was used by Fred Harvey to transport items years ago. This and other Fred Harvey artifacts are in the Halstead depot museum in Halstead.
Helen A. Collins talks about a crate that was used by Fred Harvey to transport items years ago. This and other Fred Harvey artifacts are in the Halstead depot museum in Halstead.
Dressed in her perfect white uniform, with all her waitressing training behind her and possessing job qualifications of being upstanding and having a good reputation, Helen A. Collins got fed up one day with a customer.

The man, who was a Santa Fe employee, always left a penny tip on his table. This was after six months of patronizing the Harvey House in Newton during the 1950s.

Collins was a Harvey Girl, a job that became famous after the movie “Harvey Girls” came out in 1946, starring Judy Garland and Angela Lansbury.

On that particular day, Collins walked over, picked up the penny, and threw it at the man as he made his way to the cash register, saying, “You need this more than I do.”

“I finally got tired of it,” said the 81-year-old former Harvey Girl, sitting in her Halstead home. “The ones that always gave me trouble was the Santa Fe employees.”

Collins said everyone who knew her knew Tom, her now late husband, worked for the Santa Fe. That’s probably why they gave her such a hard time.

After she threw the penny, Collins realized the manager was standing behind her. She thought she was safe from the manager’s judging eyes, thinking the manager was in an office instead of on the floor.

The man asked the manager to not punish Collins because Collins told Tom she was going to throw a penny at him if he kept it up, and then Tom told the man of her plans.

“He said, ‘Don’t punish her. I’ve been tormenting her since day one,’” Collins said.

Collins worked at the Newton Harvey House from 1953 when she was 17 and married until it closed on May 5, 1957. In 1953, Collins and her husband lived with his mother in Newton.

“I was tired of being at home at night with his mother all the time,” Collins said.

One night, she dropped Tom off at work and decided to apply for a Harvey Girl job. She got the job, and her shift was from 3-11 p.m., which was about the time her husband also worked.

“When I told him I got hired, and he said, ‘When do you start?’” Collins said. “And I told him, I said, ‘The next day.’”

She showed up at 3 p.m. the next day and was told to return the next day. Collins wanted to know why, and the answer was “for training.”

The next day, she received her uniform and spent eight solid hours waiting on the manager, taking her coffee and food.

“I had to serve her meals,” Collins said, adding she learned how to wait on people. “I’d never waited on anybody before.”

In addition to having to be upstanding and not throw things at customers, there were other standards for Harvey Girls.

“If I spilled one drop in the saucer, I’d have to go back and get a new, clean saucer, and then I thought, ‘I’ll be smart. I’ll carry the coffee cup in one hand and the saucer in the other’ until the manager seen me, and she said that’s not allowed,” Collins said.

By the time her Harvey Girl career ended, Collins said she could carry four cups and saucers in one hand without spilling, with two stacked on top of two.

Instead of having the coffee cups at the tables, the Harvey Girls had a coffee bar, where they had to fill cups there.

When she first started, her duties were behind the counter.

“I worked there for a good year and a half,” Collins said, adding at one point, she was sent to work for a short time at a Harvey House in Gallup, N.M., during what Collins called the Indian Centennial. She traveled there with her sister-in-law, and while there, various Harvey Girls wore Mexican-style uniforms instead of the ones they usually wore.

“It was a lot of fun,” Collins said. “The head chief always came in the Harvey House.”

He asked Collins where she and her sister-in-law were from, and she told him Newton. He invited them to attend Indian centennial events.

At the time, Collins worked the counter, but the big Indian chief, as she called him, who was a customer, wanted her to work in the dining room, because that’s where he wanted to dine with his guests. The big chief used his influence to get her working on the floor.

“I went out and was his private waitress,” Collins said. “He said, ‘You have the best attitude of anyone who’s waited on me, and you have a smile to light up a world.’”

The big chief gave Collins a couple of bracelets, at least one of which he made, and she still has one.

“I told him my husband isn’t going to like it when I go back home,” she said. “He said, ‘I don’t care.’”

When it was time for her to leave, Collins said the “big, ol’ burly guy” gave her a hug and sent her on her way.

While in Gallup, Collins said the Harvey Girls were told not to walk on the streets at night.

However, one night, they decided to walk around. On one hill, they saw nothing but teepees and campfires. The next time she went through there later in life, there were a bunch of houses built on the hill.

Although she was a favored waitress, there was one time Collins almost lost her job. In 1955, she wanted to be in the movie “Picnic,” along with her daughter; the film was shot in Halstead, where the Collins family lived at the time. So, she told the manager, who said that would be fine, but when she got back, she wouldn’t have a job. Collins wanted her job, so she’s not in the movie.

Tom and Collins moved to Halstead after they learned she was pregnant, because that’s where Tom wanted to raise their child.

“I was already a Harvey Girl when we moved over here,” Collins said.

There were a few things Collins enjoyed about the job.

“The experience and meeting new people,” she said. “The women I worked with, we all had a good time.”

Like Collins, most of the other Harvey Girls had husbands who worked for the railroad.

“It combined the two real good,” she said.

Collins has a brain, as well as a scrapbook, packed full of Harvey House memories. The scrapbook has menus from the ’50s, when a turkey dinner was $1.75 and salmon steak was $1.35.

There are newspaper clippings, including one from the Hutch paper in 1982 when they had a Harvey Girl reunion, which Collins attended. There are also photos of Collins wearing her uniform when she worked as a Harvey Girl and pictures of a buffet served in 1953.

Collins carries facts and memories about Fred Harvey and Harvey Houses in her mind, not on sheets of paper. She said she’s given 35 to 40 talks on being a Harvey Girl, and said her photo is in a museum in Hugo, Okla., and that her uniform and more pieces of her Harvey items are on display in the Halstead depot museum.

One thing Collins discusses during her talks is Fred Harvey, whom she said came from England to the States at age 15 by himself. He worked in restaurants until he got older, and he and his friend then started a restaurant in New Orleans.

However, Harvey got the flu that was killing many people at the time and returned to Kansas to recuperate. He then secured a job as a mail clerk for the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad.

While on the train, it stopped at a restaurant when Harvey worked on the train, and they had 30 minutes to eat. The train whistle blew after 10 or 15 minutes, and Harvey found out the restaurant owner and conductor were in cahoots to get people to leave their food, so the restaurant could serve that same food to others later.

Harvey didn’t like that and decided to open a restaurant, the first of which was in Topeka.

“Then he just gradually moved across the country” Collins said, adding the first restaurant opened in 1876.

“I guess I was lucky I done everything I was supposed to do, so I felt lucky I got to be a Harvey Girl,” Collins said.