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Cool Things - Harvey House Gong

Harvey House gong

This brass gong called diners to the table in Topeka's Harvey House.

Travelers have always had difficulty finding good food to eat. Those who rode trains in the early 1870s had a harder time than most.

Restaurant service at depots was unreliable; either the food was poor quality or there simply wasn’t enough time to eat it before the train departed the station. Passengers instead often brought along their own food or bought it from vendors on the train.

Fred Harvey changed travelers’ eating habits forever. In 1876 he leased the lunch counter at Topeka’s Santa Fe depot and operated a business built on cleanliness, service, and good food. Impressed with his work, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe turned over control of food service along the rail line. The Harvey House restaurants that developed--including ones at Florence, Newton, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Lakin, as well as many along the Santa Fe lines--became known for quality ingredients, reasonable prices, immaculate dining rooms, and efficient waitresses. The Harvey Houses became the first chain restaurants.

Topeka's Harvey House dining room, 1920sBut for the restaurants to work efficiently they had to find ways for people to eat quickly in the limited time of a station stop. This gong from the Topeka Harvey House was used to alert waitresses when a train was arriving, as well as attract passengers to the dining room. The staff of the restaurant also received advance warning--a member of the train crew counted how many passengers would be eating and wired ahead that information. The locomotive whistle just before a stop was the first warning to the waitresses that the train was arriving.

The following describes the scene at the Topeka Harvey House (its dining room is pictured at left):

“There are still men and women in Topeka who remember the scene at the depot when the train came in. A white-aproned waiter, beating a brass gong with a wooden mallet, brought the passengers quickly to the dining room door. The first course was on the table and as soon as the diner was seated, the waitress went down the table asking, “Tea, iced tea, coffee, or milk,” and at the same time positioning the coffee cup at each place accordingly, so that the girl coming behind to pour the drinks knew just what to pour. The service in the dining room was table d’hote with two choices for the main course. The plates already served in the kitchen with meat and vegetables, were quickly placed on the tables.”--Minnie Dubbs Millbrook, “Fred Harvey and the Santa Fe,” Shawnee County Historical Society Bulletin No. 56, The Santa Fe in Topeka.

Warren Harrington, a busboy at the Harvey House at Canadian, Texas, recalled:

“I was responsible for spotting the trains and alerting the chef and the girls. I’d stand out on the platform where I could see up the tracks about four miles. With the first glimpse of the train, I would run back and report to the chef, then I would grab this big brass gong—dish-shaped, about four inches deep and twenty inches in diameter—and whack the daylights out of it with a wood stick with a ball on the end of it. I really gave it a working over. Inside, everything went into gear but quick!”—Lesley Poling-Kempes, The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West, p.140.

In 1975 this gong from the Topeka Harvey House was given to the Kansas Historical Society by R.E. LaBounty, a Fred Harvey executive who once worked as a busboy at Topeka. LaBounty had used the gong and saved it when the restaurant was torn down. It is on display in the main gallery of the Kansas Museum of History.

Entry: Cool Things - Harvey House Gong

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: January 2002

Date Modified: March 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.