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Colonel Sanders: The Slow Rise Of A Fast Food Giant

Harland David Sanders was born on a farm in Indiana. His father died when he was a child, and his mother went to work in a cannery, so the young boy helped out with the farm and took care of his two younger siblings, learning how to prepare food, how to cook meats and vegetables, and even bake bread.

His mother eventually remarried, but Harland didn’t get along with his stepfather. So he left home, and at age 16 went to live with his uncle who worked for a streetcar company. He got a job as a conductor — and thus began his lifelong love affair with trains.

Harland Sanders did a brief stint in the army, then moved to Alabama, where he lived with another uncle who got him a job at the Southern Railroad. He worked his way up to fireman, and along the way met Josephine King, the girl who would become his wife. They had three children together.

The family moved to Tennessee where he worked for Illinois Central and started taking correspondence courses to become a lawyer. Sanders lost his railroad job after getting into a fight with a colleague, and then moved over to the Rock Island Railroad. When he completed his law courses, he started practicing law in Little Rock, Ark., but that career soon blew up when he again got in a fight — this time in the courtroom, with his own client!

Perhaps you’re starting to see a pattern. Harland Sanders went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad, then quit to sell life insurance for Prudential, but he was soon fired for insubordination. Then he co-founded a ferry company on the Ohio River, and when it proved reasonably successful he sold his share of the business and started a lighting company. The lighting venture failed in the face of competition, but the young man happened to meet an executive with Standard Oil who signed him up to run a gas station in Nicholasville, KY.

By then it was the middle of the Depression, and the service station was forced to close down. But he soon made a deal with Shell to run another gas station, in Corbin, KY, and in order to boost sales he began to serve food — chicken and ham and steak — at first in his house next door to the station, and later opening a real restaurant. His popularity grew, until the food critic Duncan Hines stopped by and included a mention of the restaurant in his book Adventures in Good Eating: “Corbin, KY. Sanders Court and Cafe. A very good place to stop en route to Cumberland Falls and the Great Smokies. Continuous 24-hour service. Sizzling steaks, fried chicken, country ham, hot biscuits.”

About this time Sanders received a commission from the governor of Kentucky as a Kentucky Colonel, in recognition for his contribution to the state’s cuisine, and so Colonel Harland Sanders started to expand his culinary world. He acquired a restaurant/motel in Asheville, NC, and later, when his Corbin place burned down, he rebuilt it as a motel with a 140-seat restaurant. By 1940 Sanders had developed his own “secret recipe” for frying chicken in a fast-cooking pressure fryer.

During World War II, gas rationing dried up business, and Colonel Sanders went off to manage cafeterias for the government in Tennessee. After the war, as he was pushing 60 years old, he got divorced, then remarried, and then he took his first venture into franchising — signing up a restaurant in (of all places) South Salt Lake, Utah. Sales at the restaurant quickly tripled, and other restaurants began asking to be a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. Sanders hit the road to spread the word, often sleeping in the back of his car. He would stop at a roadside restaurant, offer to cook his chicken, and then if workers liked it he would negotiate franchise rights.

The concept caught on, and soon KFC outlets were opening all around the country, and in Mexico and Canada as well. But by the mid-1960s Sanders decided the company had grown too big for him to handle, and so he sold out to a group of Kentucky businessmen. He arranged to take a salaried position as a “brand ambassador.”

In 1965 Colonel Sanders moved to Mississauga, Ontario to oversee the Canadian KFCs, which had not been part of the sale of the company. He lived in Canada for 15 years while continuing to make appearances and film commercials for the U. S. company, even while publicly criticizing the company for changing his secret sauce.

In his later years — and after the governor had recommissioned him a Kentucky Colonel — Sanders dressed the part, wearing a white suit, and growing a goatee and bleaching it white. He referred to himself as Colonel, and never appeared in public without his get-up — a heavy wool suit in winter and a light cotton suit in summer.

Harland Sanders died at age 90, in 1980, leaving a legacy of over 6,000 KFC restaurants . . . and his familiar visage that still adorns the logo of the company, from sea to shining sea.

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About The Author
Tom Lashnits
Tom Lashnits
Tom Lashnits spent 40 years in New York book and magazine publishing before retiring to Bucks County, PA, in 2017. He now volunteers in the school system, produces the baby boomer blog Sightings Over Sixty . . . and is just starting to chase after grandchildren.
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