We live in a traveling culture heavily defined by McDonald’s, Marriott, Holiday Inn, Starbucks and the like—successfully branded, distinctive national hospitality chains. For that, we can thank (or blame) a workaholic cockney immigrant named Fred Harvey.

Yes, Fred Harvey, not Howard Johnson. Johnson had his own genius, but Harvey was his forebear. Starting in 1876, Harvey created a chain of restaurants, hotels and stores at Santa Fe Railroad stations from Chicago to California that were not only ubiquitous, but really good. At a time when the gunslingers were still shooting it out at the O.K. Corral, Harvey brought high standards, interesting recipes, white tablecloths and well-trained “Harvey Girl” waitresses to what was then the back of beyond.

In Appetite for America, Harvey’s story is both a comprehensive cultural history and a fascinating family saga. Author Stephen Fried takes us from Harvey’s arrival in the U.S. in 1853 to his descendents’ sale of the by-then declining company to a conglomerate in 1968. He even includes an appendix of Harvey House recipes (of which “Bull Frogs SautĂ© Provencal” is perhaps the most intriguing).

Plagued with terrible health in his later years, Fred Harvey was lucky in his heir. His son, Ford Harvey, not only greatly expanded the empire, he had a lasting impact on the U.S. as an impresario for Southwestern tourism, the development of the Native American curio industry and the invention of the Santa Fe design style. (If you own turquoise earrings from Taos, you’re in Ford’s debt.) But, as is so often true, everything fell apart in the third generation; the talented heirs weren’t much interested in the business, and the untalented ones left to mind the store didn’t have the imagination to face up to interstates and airports.

Happily, not all was lost. Several of the high-end hotels developed under Ford Harvey still exist, like the always-booked El Tovar at the Grand Canyon. And for more proof of Harvey’s legacy, be sure to track down MGM’s The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland, and join in the chorus of “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.”

Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.

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