Harland David Sanders, one of Kentucky’s most beloved and well known celebrities was actually not from Kentucky at all. He was born September 9th, 1890 in Henryville, Indiana. His father died when he was just 5 years old, and when his mother took a job at a tomato factory, Harland was left to watch his two younger siblings and cook for them.
He dropped out of school in the 7th Grade, and went to work as a farmhand. Leaving home at 13, Harland had many jobs during his teenage years from a carriage painter to a streetcar conductor. He joined the army when he was just 16, and worked as a teamster in Cuba. He was honorably discharged before his 18th birthday, and went to live with his uncle in Alabama. He worked for the railroad for many years, and studied law at night through a correspondence course. He graduated and would practice law in Little Rock for several years before a courtroom brawl with his own client forced him to change direction.
In 1920, Harland Saders began operating a ferry across the Ohio River, a successful business which he sold to buy an acetylene lamp manufacturing company. When this company went out of business, he worked for Michelin Tire, having finally made it to Kentucky in his early thirties. In 1924, he met the general manager of Standard Oil of Kentucky by chance, made a strong impression and ended up running a service station in Nicholasville which would close during the Great Depression.
Harland had done well though, so in 1932 Shell Oil Company offered him a job running a Shell Station in Corbin, Kentucky. While there, he started selling hot meals to travelers from his adjoining house. He sold all kinds of things including steak, country ham, chicken and biscuits. People really loved his cooking, and he continued to experiment with his recipes. Sanders was named a Kentucky Colonel in 1935, an honorary designation granted to outstanding citizens. As the years passed, he would embrace the title more and more until the two became one in the same.
When the service station burned to the ground in an accidental fire, he rebuilt it as a successful hotel and restaurant called Sanders Court and Cafe. It was there, in 1940, that he perfected his secret blend of 11 herbs and spices and a novel way of cooking fried chicken in a pressure cooker. It was this combination of speed and spice that would make him a household name around the world.
The Colonel authorized his first franchise location in 1952 in Salt Lake City, Utah to a man named Pete Harman. Harman thought the Colonel’s chicken would be a hit and give off vibes of southern hospitality. He had a friend paint him a sign calling attention to this new menu item, and hence the name Kentucky Fried Chicken was born on a signpost in Utah.
Three years later, Colonel Sanders sold his cafe in Corbin and opened a restaurant with his second wife Claudia in Shelbyville, not far from Louisville. At 65 years old, he decided to take a crack at franchising his chicken in earnest. For the next several years he drove around the country, often sleeping in the back of his car to save money. He would go to restaurants and offer to cook them some fried chicken and then try and sell them on the process and a franchise. And thus, one restaurant at a time, Kentucky Fried Chicken really took off. Soon franchises were popping up across the country and even internationally in Canada, the United Kingdom, Mexico and Jamaica. In 1962, Sanders patented his pressure frying method and trademarked the phrase “It’s Finger Lickin’ Good”.
Finally, in 1964 when he was in his mid-seventies, Sanders sold the rights to Kentucky Fried Chicken for two million dollars. He stayed on with the company as a salaried brand ambassador, and often drove as much as 200,000 miles a year around the country making appearances.
He opened a sit-down restaurant in Shelbyville called Claudia Sanders: The Colonel’s Lady. It’s still there today although now it’s called Claudia Sanders’ Dinner House. It’s the only place in the world where you can get the Colonel’s original recipe chicken that’s not a KFC. It’s a cool place, the chicken is about the same, but the side dishes are excellent.
Colonel Harland Sanders died in 1980 in Louisville, Kentucky at the age of 90. When he died, there were over 6,000 Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in 48 countries around the world, a number which has grown to over 21,000 today. He was so beloved by his adopted home state that his body lay in state at the Kentucky State Capitol Building and a statue of him can be found there to this day. He was buried in Cave Hill Cemetery along with many other famous Kentuckians.
Colonel Harland Sanders is probably the best known Kentuckian of all time around the world, surpassing even the likes of Jim Beam, Muhammed Ali and Daniel Boone. His trademark white suit and black string-tie are recognized worldwide. He lived a fascinating life and clearly wasn’t afraid to fail. His big success didn’t really begin until he was in his mid sixties. Let that be our takeaway lesson from the man simply known as The Colonel: it’s never too late to make a fresh start.