Bertha Spears
by Susan Atwood
Sponsored by High Plains Library District

Born into poverty and with no change in those circumstances during her first 24 years, Bertha realized how very unlikely it was that she would ever do anything in life other than hoe vegetables in a desolate land that refused to yield anything good.  Then a chance encounter brought an opportunity—but accepting the opportunity could be scandalous!...A job offer, away from home, as a waitress along the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad (AT&SF) with Fred Harvey. 

Terrified but determined, Bertha seized the opportunity, and the adventure.  Little did she or anyone else realize at the time, she accepted an opportunity that more than 100,000 women would also choose—to become a Harvey Girl—becoming part of the largest migration of working women in U.S. history. 

Fred Harvey, it is said, civilized the west one meal at a time, by providing first class dining, lodging and customer service along the AT&SF Railroad beginning in 1876.  Maintaining the impeccable “Harvey Standard” through the years, Fred Harvey and the famous Harvey Girls, introduced Americans to the Great American Southwest.  Travelers learned of little known Southwestern Indian cultures, and the awesome wonder of the Grand Canyon. During the Great Depression no one was ever turned away, hungry, from a Harvey House. During the war effort, Harvey Girls served thousands upon thousands of meals to the boys that filled the GI troop trains.


Recommended Reading

Lesley Poling-Kempes,  The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West. Da Capo Press, 1989.


Susan Atwood

Susan has been performing for 17 years for audiences at museums, historical societies, and libraries throughout the state as a member of The Legendary Ladies, a Colorado women’s history performance organization.  With the Legendary Ladies, Susan portrays Harriett Fish Backus − The Tomboy Bride, and Bertha Spears – A Harvey Girl.  Susan graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Colorado in 1994, with a degree in Economics.  Recently retired from the U.S. Department of Defense, Susan is now enjoying the freedom of retirement to begin further exploration into the world of historical reenactment.



  • Desperate to escape her dead-end Dust Bowl life, Bertha Spears jumped at an opportunity for hard work —not just as a waitress—but as a Harvey Girl along the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway.


  • Bertha’s hard work as a Harvey Girl, in the iconic black and white uniform is rewarded with a better life as she upholds the ‘Harvey Standard of Excellence’ at Harvey House hotels and luxury trackside resorts throughout the Southwest.




  •  “Mothers hide your daughters!  They will become scarlet women!”

             -Baptist preachers, 1898, on the presence of ‘Harvey Girls’ in town. 


  • “For a few months it looked as though civilization were going to stop short in her onward march at the capital of Kansas, and that the westward course of empire…would end at the same spot.  Travelers positively declined to go further once they had eaten with Fred Harvey.  Traffic backed up, and it became necessary for the Santa Fe to open similar houses at other points along its right of way in order that the West might not be settled in just one spot.”

-The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West


  • “The girls at a Fred Harvey place never look dowdy, frowsy, tired, slipshod or overworked.  They are expecting you—clean collars, clean aprons, hands and faces washed, nails manicured—they are bright, fresh, healthy, and expectant…Where the name Fred Harvey appears, the traveling public expects much.  It may be on the desert of Arizona, a hundred miles from water, but if it is a Fred Harvey place, you get filtered spring water, ice, fresh fruit and every other good thing you can find at the same season in the best places in New York City or Chicago.  How the miracle occurs, you do not know—it is a Fred Harvey concern—that is enough.   Everything about the place must reflect decency, order, thrift, cleanliness, good cheer, system…”

-Elbert Hubbard, renowned American orator, philosopher, and 20th century author, Leavenworth Times, 1905;  The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West


  • “Many children and grandchildren of former Harvey Girls boast about their mother or grandmother being a true pioneer, and coming west with the Harvey Houses.  It carries a great deal more prestige than coming west in a covered wagon.  Anybody could ride in a covered wagon, but only a lady could become a Harvey Girl.” 

-The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West


  • “Here I was a country girl going to picture shows, barn dances, drives in the country in cars with other girls, doing things no one knew about on the farm.”

-The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West



1908   Bertha is born in rural Oklahoma

1920s  Family moves to Texas

1930   Family sells what little they have in Texas and move back to Oklahoma

1932   Bertha’s mother passes away; Bertha accepts a job as A Harvey Girl in Winslow, Arizona

1935   Works Easter to Labor Day at Bright Angel Lodge − Grand Canyon

1942   Marries a Santa Fe railroad man, ending her ‘career’ as A Harvey Girl

1945   Becomes a successful business woman with a sewing shop in Winslow, AZ; Mary Colter, an architect and interior designer who worked exclusively for Fred Harvey throughout the Southwest became one of her special customers.