Kentucky’s Most Famous Citizen is a Hoosier: Colonel Sanders
By Mary Giorgio
We all have memories of taking a bite of juicy Kentucky Fried Chicken. It’s become an iconic part of American food culture. Most people think that KFC’s founder, Colonel Harland Sanders, was a native of Kentucky. However, he was a born and bred Hoosier.
Sanders was born on September 9, 1890, in Henryville, Indiana. His father died when he was just six years old. To help provide for his siblings, Sanders took his first job at the age of ten as a local farmhand.
Over the years, he worked a variety of odd jobs including a farmer, streetcar conductor, and insurance salesman. To ease the burden on his widowed mother, Sanders began cooking for his two siblings and beginning his a lifelong obsession with the culinary arts.
At the age of 16, Sanders falsified his birth certificate so he could join the Army. He was sent to Cuba for several months before being honorably discharged. Sanders got a job working on the railroad and studied law. He practiced law for several years before lapsing into a fistfight with his own client and leaving law for good.
In 1929, Sanders moved to Corbin, Kentucky, to operate a gas station. He had a great location on the highway. In addition to gas, he sold food to truckers and travelers. Sanders food became so popular that he eventually opened a restaurant down the street. Kentucky governor Ruby Laffoon awarded him with the honorary title of colonel in 1935 after tasting Sanders’ cooking. Food critic Duncan Hines included the restaurant in his food travel guide.
In 1940, Sanders perfected his recipe for fried chicken using a pressure cooker to cut cooking time. The chicken was so popular that it gained quite a fan club.
By the 1950s, Sanders’ restaurant began to falter. The construction of a nearby interstate vastly reduced traffic along the local highway, resulting in fewer restaurant customers. Realizing the location was no longer profitable, Sanders closed the restaurant.
Sanders sold his first chicken franchise in 1952 to Pete Harman of Salt Lake City, Utah. Over the next 10 years, he poured his energy into the business, traveling cross country in search of entrepreneurs who wanted to open one of his restaurants. By 1964, Sanders had sold 600 franchises.
In 1964, Sanders sold his restaurant business to investors for $2 million. Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) went public in 1966. Despite the sale of the company, Sanders continued to act as its spokesman. His signature appearance complete with white hair, white goatee, white double-breasted suit, and black string ties became a fast-food icon.
By 1971, there were more than 3,500 KFC franchises. The restaurant chain was worth $285 million. That same year, the franchise was purchased by Heublein Co. Soon after, the food quality greatly deteriorated. Though he still served as the public face of the company, Sanders disapproved of the reduced food quality. He sued the company and eventually settled out of court. The deal included a promise from Heublein that Sanders could instruct their cooks on the proper method of cooking fried chicken.
Sanders died on December 16, 1980, at the age of 90. Today, KFC is the world’s second largest fast food franchise behind McDonald’s. It continues to be loved by people worldwide.