Growing up in the east — the product of suburban shuls and summer camp — I didn’t hear a lot of stories about bubbies and zaydes on horseback herding cattle, or great uncles at rail depots fighting off dusty desperados in cowboy America.
So I was deeply and pleasantly surprised to meet so many colorful and fascinating frontier Jews while researching the life of revolutionary businessman Fred Harvey.
Harvey was the founding father of the American hospitality industry, and his multigenerational family business, running a chain of trackside restaurants and hotels along the Santa Fe railroad from Chicago to Los Angeles starting in the 1870s, was said to have civilized the Wild West.
One of the many lessons I needed to learn about American history is just how much more diverse and multicultural this country was far earlier than many of us have been taught.
My education came through two largely unknown frontier Jews who worked for Fred Harvey, an entrepreneur who, with his dutiful son Ford (who ran the company in his father’s name longer than Fred did) and their legendary waitresses the “Harvey Girls,” changed the way we eat, drink, travel, spend our leisure time — even the way we see our country.
Fred Harvey pioneered equal-opportunity employment, since the company not only had the nation’s first core of working, independent women as waitresses, but some of its first female executives and high-level African-American employees, Iron Chefs from all over Europe and partnerships with American Indian artisans all over the Southwest.
It is a saga of American business and culture that most Easterners, like me, are hearing for the first time, and most Westerners have never before heard in depth. And the most surprising part of the story involves Dave Benjamin and Herman Schweizer, two Jewish immigrants to the Wild West who provided a big part of the company’s heart, soul and smarts. While there were Jewish merchants in California, Texas and in towns along the Santa Fe Trail starting in the 1820s (and conversos from Spain going back centuries earlier), Benjamin and Schweizer were among the first prominent Jews to do business all over the newly uniting states of the West.
Benjamin, a cherubic, serious-minded Brit with wire-rim glasses and a trim moustache, went from being Fred Harvey’s favorite young bank teller in Leavenworth, Kan. in the 1870s, to running the day-to-day operations of his Kansas City-based hospitality empire, as it grew to include over 60 trackside dining rooms and lunchrooms, 25 hotels, a huge cattle ranch, three large dairy and poultry farms, and a beverage facility that had the only license in the nation to bottle its own Coca-Cola. To manage a staff that grew to 7,000 employees in 80 different locations before widespread use of telephones, ingenious, exacting systems had to be put into place: while Harvey inspired them, Benjamin had to detail, execute and maintain them. He also mentored Fred’s son Ford, and had a knack for unflappably surviving historical disasters: he was in Galveston during the
1900 hurricane, San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake, and was vacationing in Europe in 1914 when WWI broke out.
Schweizer, on the other hand, was like a bold character out of “Blazing Saddles” — a short, stocky, prematurely balding, cigar-chomping German immigrant who rose from selling oranges on Santa Fe trains in California to managing the Harvey eating house in Gallup, N.M., (a job he got after winning a fight with a tough freight train crew that refused to pay — crowning one with a Fred Harvey signature sugar bowl and pulling an unloaded antique gun on the other). His hobby was riding by horseback to nearby Navajo trading posts and villages to acquire blankets, pottery and jewelry. While he had an eye for the most artful work, Schweizer also knew that tourists wanted lighter, less expensive pieces — so he brought the craftsman smaller pieces of turquoise and thinner silver, and commissioned the more Navajo Lite style of jewelry that most people, today, associate with the Southwest. When the company decided to create the nation’s best Indian art museum at the Albuquerque Santa Fe station — to entertain tourists during the 30-minute meal stop — Schweizer began buying every collection he could find (many belonging to Jewish merchant families in New Mexico).
He was the driving force behind the powerful Harvey Indian art business, which fueled the growing public fascination with native culture, serving all the major museums and private collectors, especially publisher William Randolph Hearst. (Schweizer and Hearst had an epic business correspondence, carried on over decades of arguing over prices and unpaid bills — Hearst once offered to pay his tab with a gushy article about the Harvey operation at the Grand Canyon in his papers — and complaints about Schweizer hiding his most special pieces away in the company vault.)
What were these Harvey men like as Jews? Benjamin and his four siblings — especially his bachelor brother Alfred, who lived with him and his family and ran a large furniture company — were considered “the embodiment of the Jewish ideal of citizenship … the highest type of the loyal and true American[s],” responsible for “in large degree, the increasing respect and understanding that the non-Jewish community maintained for the Jew,” according to Jewish press reports at the time (quoted in Frank Baker’s “Roots in a Moving Stream: The Centennial History of Congregation B’nai Jehudah of Kansas City, Missouri, 1870-1970”). Alfred ran United Jewish Charities (UJC) in Kansas City for 18 years, and was known to give up to half his salary to charity. Dave worked with his brother at UJC — which often partnered with the local Catholic Charities where Ford Harvey and his wife Judy were leaders — but was also active in the nascent YM-YWHA movement, which led to the creation of Jewish community centers, which he saw as havens “for those who can’t afford the more expensive form of Jewish clubs.” The Benjamin brothers (there was another, Harry, who also worked at Fred Harvey) helped their sister Fannie found one of the country’s first Jewish summer camps for needy immigrant children, starting in 1907, which came to be known as “Bittersweet Camp.” Dave was also very involved in making sure Jewish charities helped all who were in need.
“I try to follow the teachings of Judaism,” he said, “by helping my brother, and I don’t think that help should be limited to my Jewish brother.”
Dave was apparently not as much of a shul-goer as his brother Alfred and did, like many Jews of his day, got interested in Christian Science as an alternative form of spirituality. (He said it helped heal his eczema.) In fact, according to historian Frank Baker, the controversial Rabbi Harry Mayer at the Benjamin’s synagogue, B’nai Jehudah, was one of only two members of the Reform clergy’s governing body to vote against a World War I-era “resolution stating one could not be both a good Jew and a Christian Science practitioner.” Most contemporary members of the Benjamin family in Kansas City, Los Angeles and elsewhere practice Judaism; a few still practice Christian Science.
Little is known about Schweizer’s religious beliefs. A lifelong bachelor (but a beloved “Uncle Herman” to his niece in Chicago and other close family friends), he apparently became more active in the Jewish community in Albuquerque as he grew older, both with the local chapter of B’nai Brith and the Reform congregation Temple Albert. He played a crucial role in one of the most famous Jewish-American events of the 20th century.
In December 1930, Albert Einstein left Germany to spend the winter lecturing at California Institute of Technology just as Hitler’s Nazi Party was making its first significant election showing. Einstein first sailed to New York, where he celebrated Chanukah with a huge throng at Madison Square Garden, and then spent time on the West Coast. In March 1931, he decided to make what had become the quintessential American pilgrimage — to see the Grand Canyon.
He was met there by a contingent of Hopi Indians — who Einstein assumed were local natives, not realizing that most of them worked for Fred Harvey. (He had recently told a class at Cal Tech, “there lies deep meaning in the fact that children of all civilized countries are so fond of playing Indians.”) Herman Schweizer was also there, both to meet the renowned scientist and to act as translator, since Einstein was still more comfortable speaking German.
As they did with all visiting dignitaries, the Hopi planned to present Einstein with a headdress and make him an honorary chief of the tribe. But they had no idea who he was.
So they pulled Schweizer, their boss, aside.
“What’s his business?” one of the Harvey Indians asked.
“He invented the Theory of Relativity,” Schweizer replied.
“All right, we’ll call him ‘Great Relative.’”
Stephen Fried is an adjunct professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the author of “Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire that Civilized the Wild West” (Bantam). ). Recent events for the book have featured bubbies dressed as Harvey Girls, and kosher Fred Harvey food.