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BULLETpeople archive
People Archive Photo
© Paul Markow

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Girl Schooled
When Lorraine Shankwitz arrived in Williams, she had no idea what a Harvey Girl was, but she quickly learned — firsthand — and her Harvey Girl education helped make ends meet in Arizona for decades to follow.

By Rachelle Sparks

Phoenix When Lorraine Shankwitz left her Chicago home and boarded a Santa Fe Railway train in 1938, she didn't know that those tracks would lead her to the grandest adventure of her life and into the pages of American history.

In her 18-year-old mind, the West was as untamed as the life she was leaving.

"There was a lot of friction between me and my dad, and I just had to get away," the 90-year-old Phoenix resident says as she recalls the day she headed to the train depot in the Windy City.

"I said, 'I want a ticket for as far West as this money will take me,' " she says, referring to a $50 bundle she'd saved and hidden from her parents. "[The ticket agent] counted the money, looked at the schedule, and said it was Williams, Arizona."

She was headed for the Wild West — cactus, desert, open space, cowboys and Indians — just like in the old black-and-white films she'd grown up watching.

"I was very much in love with Hoot Gibson and Tom Mix and all the rest of 'em," she laughs with giddy, girl-like recollection.

After five days and six nights, the steady chug of the train slowed and crept to a halt amid breathtaking, white-tipped ranges.

"There were mountains all around me — and snow," Shankwitz says. "I thought, 'I got off at the wrong stop and the train is long gone. What am I going to do?' "

The question thrills Shankwitz as much today as it did when she was 18. "I've always loved to see what's on the other side of the mountain," she says thoughtfully.

SHE HAD NO MONEY, no plans, nowhere to stay, and the solution to her woes was as unexpected as the mountain ranges that surrounded her. Through the flurries she saw a white, pillared building alive with the sound of chatter and the clinking of silverware.

"And, oh, I needed food," Shankwitz laughs lightly at the memory, a fragile hand resting gently on her stomach.

"I picked up my traveling bag, went inside and looked around," she continues. "I thought, Hmmm, there are waitresses here."

Little did she know that those waitresses were actually Harvey Girls, the pretty faces of the newly civilized West.

"I didn't know anything about Harvey Girls," she says. "If I'd known, I could have ridden in style, free meals, the whole bit."

Entrepreneur Fred Harvey had begun opening high-class restaurants and hotels in the small towns that lined the tracks of the Santa Fe Railway in the late 1800s. He served passengers on fine china and white linen tablecloths.

Ads in newspapers across the country sought young, educated, attractive women to serve as waitresses in these elegant establishments, and while they flocked out West in first class, Shankwitz landed by accident and by chance. The manager of the Fray Marcos Harvey House saw her potential and hired her on the spot.

Shankwitz settled into her second-story room, learned the ropes of maintaining the Harvey Girl image — "Oh, were they strict" — and went to work.

"Every day we came down, and the manager inspected our fingernails, our hair, the seams in our silk stockings," she recalls, describing the starched, high-collared black-and-white uniforms the girls wore.

For $15 a week, plus room and board, they polished silverware, buffed imported china and folded monogrammed napkins. "When ranchers and railroaders walked through the doors, we catered to them," she says. "We belonged to them, no matter what, even for a 10-cent piece of pie and a nickel cup of coffee."

Smiles and manners were served with each meal, but in addition, she says, "We were supposed to be such goody-good girls at that time. In front of the patrons, we were goody-two-shoes, but then we took the hairnets off and let our hair down."

Wild nights on the town involved sneaking out their windows and joining local boys for evenings of playing music in the depot, building campfires and horseback-riding.

She pauses, takes a deep breath and closes her eyes.

"Oh, how I wish I could go back to those days."

Shankwitz worked as a Harvey Girl for a year before heading back to Chicago when her mother became ill. But Arizona never left her mind, and neither did the grand adventure that brought her to the state.

Ten years later, she reconnected with her adventurous 18-year-old self and said to her son, "Frank, honey, we're going to Arizona."

She packed their station wagon and, once again, with no plans and no place to stay, headed West. They wound up in Seligman, "fell in love with that shanty town," and stayed for four years before moving to Prescott.

She made ends meet the only way she knew how — serving in small-town motels and cafés with Harvey Girl style — before moving to Phoenix, where she still lives, more than 70 years after her first trip out West.

Most Harvey Houses across the country have either been demolished or turned into historical sites or museums. Shankwitz says that very few Harvey Girls remain, and she is glad to be among them.

A girlish grin creeps across her face as she recalls the life she's lived. "I'm so glad I lived in that era," she says.

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