Before he was the Colonel, Sanders sold insurance, tires, and gas. He worked on a number of ferries and on farms. Eventually, he stumbled into the fried chicken business and never looked back.
Everything about him is familiar: the salt-white goatee, the gentleman farmer’s duds, and the slight drawl that all promise the crunch of chicken and finger-lickin’ gravy, made from, yes, 11 herbs and spices. He’s Harland David Sanders — better known as Colonel Sanders — and he has been serving up comfort-food from Halifax to Hanoi for decades.
Before he was the grandfatherly Colonel, though, Sanders bounced around North America as a steam engine worker, an insurance man, and a gas station worker. This is the story of how a farm boy became the Colonel and how a gas-station greasy spoon blossomed into KFC.
The Makings Of Colonel Sanders
Harland Sanders was born in 1890 in Henryville, Indiana, to a farm-working father and a task-master mother. When his father died and his mother went to work at a cannery, Sanders became the primary caregiver for his two younger siblings at seven years old and he mastered all the homemaking skills before he was eight, namely, cooking and food preparation.
Sanders holds no ill will for how quickly he had to grow up and thanked his mother for imbuing him with the responsibility and drive that later served him well:
“We knowed enough not to burn the house down — I don’t know why kids are so different today. We was already firmly disciplined. Mom didn’t spare the rod if we disobeyed her. And usually we didn’t, because we knew she knew better. Whatever Mom said went.”
Sanders’ mother eventually remarried and he found himself out of the house around 12 years old when his stepfather turned out to be nothing of the fathering sort. Sanders then decided he’d had enough of school in 7th grade, “When I started class that fall, they had algebra in our arithmetic…Well, I couldn’t conceive any part of it. The only thing I got out of it was that x equaled the unknown quantity. And I thought, Oh, Lord, if we got to wrestle with this, I’ll just leave — I don’t care about the unknown quantity. So my school days ended right there near Greenwood, Indiana, and algebra’s what drove me off,” Sanders recalled.
From here, Colonel Harland Sanders’ story takes some turns. He rambled through Indiana doing farm work and then put out fires along the railroad in Alabama. He was often paid less than $15 a month with room and board.
Sanders worked on steamboat ferries out west and in justice courts in Arkansas, he sold insurance, lamps, and tires, and worked as the secretary to the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. He married at 19 to Josephine King and together they had three children. He served in the U.S. military in Cuba for a spell — though not as a colonel as that title has an entirely different backstory.
This went on for about 28 years until, eventually, Sanders found himself face-to-face with his destiny in Kentucky.
Highways, Hijinks, And Murder
Harland Sanders found himself in possession of a little gas station in Corbin, Kentucky, just off the highway. He began selling leftover meals to hungry travelers, simple meals, like he’d have made for his young siblings in Indiana: country ham, string beans, okra, fluffy biscuits — and fried chicken.
Sanders’ stop proved so lucrative, in fact, that he began to advertise on the highway to draw in travelers in need of a home cooked meal. The restaurant grew day by day as demand ballooned — particularly for his unbeatable chicken.
It was around this time, too, in 1935, when the honorary title of “Colonel” was bestowed upon him by Kentucky Governor Ruby Laffoon for his service to his community and entrepreneurship.
But the success of the station drew ire from the competition: namely, Matt Stewart, who owned the nearby Standard Oil station. One day, Sanders caught Stewart painting over his highway billboard. Stewart apparently had hoped that by siphoning off traffic to Sanders’ station, he could damage the future-Colonel’s business. Sanders threatened to “blow [his] goddamn head off.”
But Stewart wasn’t deterred. Colonel Harland Sanders caught him redhanded again and a shootout ensued.
One of the representatives at Sanders’ station, Robert Gibson, caught a bullet and died. Stewart faced a sentence of 18 years in prison for Gibson’s violent murder. As for Sanders, all charges were dropped after his arrest. With the other game in town permanently shelved Sanders took advantage of the vacuum and business boomed. The first bonafide Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise opened in Utah in 1952, and thus, KFC was founded.
He was soon able to close the gas pumps entirely and open an entire 142-seater restaurant. Here he met his second wife, a young waitress in his employment named Claudia. They wed in 1949 after a two-year affair which ended in his divorce from his first wife, Josephine.
Colonel Harland Sanders may have felt he had already made it, but misfortune was just around the corner.
Founding the KFC Empire
1950s America saw a myriad of changes. The post-World War II boom also meant an infrastructure boom which became obvious during the Eisenhower administration with the increased construction of highways.
One such highway cut through Sanders’ neck of the woods and rerouted traffic about seven miles away from his place.
Starved for business, Harland Sanders couldn’t even sell the building at a loss. By this time, he’d mastered pressure frying chicken in a pressure cooker which by this time was still considered a new invention — this is not to mention the 11 herbs and spices which spoke for themselves.
He introduced his methods to other restauranteurs and engaged in small franchise agreements. He was often paid four cents for every chicken the restaurant cooked and sold with his process. Emboldened by this, 66-year-old Sanders decided to hit the road: If they couldn’t get business to come to them, the Sanders decided, they’d take themselves to the business.
“My wife and I slept in the car many nights while we waited for a restaurant to open so we could go into our sales pitch,” Sanders recalled. Besides, the pressure cooking method was perfect for mobile operation as the process not only cooked the food faster but kept it fresh.
The road to franchising wasn’t short, but it was fruitful. The same highways that choked them for business brought the Colonel a fortune. Sanders would saunter into whichever restaurant he and Claudia happened upon and pitch them his chicken. If the employees were impressed, they’d make a deal to sell some of the Colonel’s chicken and give him a portion of the profit.
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