Railroad and Culinary History at the Brownwood Harvey House

Living quarters Brownwood TX Harvey House (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Upstairs living quarters room re-created at the Brownwood, Texas Harvey House (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

As the granddaughter of a railroad man, I grew up hearing about trains.

In the 1964 children’s book that my parents gave me, Trains, Tracks & Trails – How the Railroads Reached the West, there is a section about restaurateur Fred Harvey, an Englishman who changed how we eat when we travel.

Thanks to his late 1800’s agreement with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (among other railroad companies) to set up nice restaurants in depots across the United States, people could enjoy fine dining in some pretty isolated areas of the American West. Locals who were lucky enough to have one of his restaurants in their town also gathered there for a good meal and conversation.

Waitstaff were women, all crisply turned out in starched black and white uniforms. They were famously known as “Harvey Girls,” and the restaurants were “Harvey Houses.”

I’ve never forgotten that Harvey Girls reference in the train book, so it was a delight to read the full story of Fred Harvey in Stephen Fried’s Appetite for America.

Book cover Appetite for America about Fred Harvey by Stephen Fried (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Book cover of “Appetite for America” about Fred Harvey’s culinary empire, by Stephen Fried (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Even better, after a social media presentation at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Brownwood, Texas (about two and a half hours southwest of Fort Worth) I learned that the Brownwood Area Chamber is located inside a former Harvey House.

Did I want to go see it? Heck, YES.

The Chamber’s Executive Director, Ray Tipton, was kind enough to give me a quick tour. If time permits, the Chamber is happy to show visitors around the building during opening hours. Even if they’re busy, anyone can go upstairs on their own to see the restored Harvey Girls period bedroom that you see in the top photo.

What used to be the downstairs casual lunch room and kitchen now houses Chamber offices, and a nice gift shop with all things Brownwood.

The more formal Harvey House dining room was located downstairs at the other end of the building.

Here is what it looked like about 100 years ago….

Photo of the original dining room layout at Brownwood TX Harvey House from Chamber info brochure

Photo of the original dining room layout at the Brownwood TX Harvey House, from a Brownwood Area Chamber of Commerce info brochure

….and here is the same view as it looks today, now serving as the Chamber main meeting room after an extensive 1990’s restoration….

Brownwood TX Harvey House dining room as it looks in 2017 (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The Brownwood Harvey House dining room as it looks in 2017 – now a meeting room (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

I liked the friendly Harvey Girl bronze statue tucked into an alcove. The model for it was the sculptor’s wife’s aunt, who had worked as a Harvey Girl in Arizona.

The hand-painted period wall stencils behind the sculpture were part of the building restoration project….

The Harvey Girl sculpture by Neil Logan at Brownwood TX Harvey House (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The Harvey Girl sculpture by Neil Logan at the Brownwood TX Harvey House, in what is now a meeting room (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Adjacent to the former Harvey House is what used to be the Brownwood railroad depot, now used as an event space.

Isn’t it elegant?

Former railroad depot now an event space Brownwood TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Former railroad depot next to the Brownwood TX Harvey House (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

It’s a long way from a 1960’s children’s book about trains to setting foot in a real Harvey House, but I’m glad it finally happened.

Thanks, Brownwood!

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