Colonel Sanders: The Unexpected Life Of The Fast Food Pioneer
Founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Colonel Harland Sanders. (Getty Images)
On December 16, 1980, the world lost a business icon and fried chicken guru when Harland David Sanders, better known as Colonel Sanders, died of leukemia. While most people today associate Colonel Sanders with Southern charm, there was much more to the man that a white suit and a black bolo tie. Let's take a look beyond the brand to see what the real Colonel Sanders was like.
A young Harland Sanders with his mother and siblings. (godvine.com)
Colonel Sanders Learned To Cook While Caring For His Young Siblings
Harland David Sanders, born in 1890 in Indiana, had a rough childhood. His father died when he was just five years old, leaving his mother nearly penniless. She took a job at the local canning factory, and while she was gone, young Harland had to care for his two younger siblings. In addition to cleaning the house and minding the children, Harland had to prepare meals for the family.
Harland Sanders worked as a ferry operator, lawyer, and midwife. (chickencattin.kfc.com)
Sanders Had A Diverse Resume
For the first three decades of his adult life, Harland Sanders held a number of different jobs. Although he dropped out of school in the sixth grade, he found work as an insurance salesman, ferry boat operator, railroad firefighter, tire salesman, and secretary. He even worked for a time as a midwife. "There was no one else to do it," he later explained. "Husbands couldn't afford doctors when their wives were pregnant." Sanders admired Clarence Darrow, so he took a correspondence course in law and set up practice in Arkansas as a justice of the peace. His tenure as a lawyer came to an end, however, when he got into a courtroom brawl with his own client.
Ruby Laffoon was the Kentucky governor who made Sanders an honorary colonel. (en.wikipedia.org)
Sanders Was In The Army But Never Made Rank
Many assume that Colonel Sanders was a military man who earned his rank after years of service, but that is only partially true. Sanders did join the U.S. Army at the age of 16 after falsifying his birth certificate to meet the minimum age requirement, but he was honorably discharged after only a short stint in Cuba. It wasn't until 1935, nearly 30 years later, that Kentucky governor Ruby Laffoon awarded Sanders the honorary rank of colonel, the highest rank that a state can bestow. Relishing his new title, Sanders decided to start dressing the part of a Southern colonel. He took to wearing a black suit coat and string tie, but he soon found that the flour he used to bread his chicken showed up on his black coat, so he switched to an all-white suit.
Colonel Sanders's only son died at age 20. (findagrave.com)
Sanders's Only Son Died After A Routine Operation
Harland Sanders and his first wife, Josephine King, had three children: two daughters, Margaret and Mildred, and a son, Harland Sanders, Jr. When Harland, Jr. was only 20 years old, he had a routine tonsillectomy, which even in those days was considered a simple, common operation. The younger Sanders, however, experienced complications from the surgery and died of blood poisoning. His untimely death sank his father into a deep depression, and his parents' marriage never recovered. Harland and Josephine divorced after 40 years of marriage in 1947, and Harland married Claudia Leddington two years later.
Sanders offered fried chicken to his gas station customers. (dailymail.co.uk)
Sanders's Fried Chicken Was Added To His Gas Station Business
In 1930, Harland Sanders opened a gas station in Corbin, Kentucky. The station was on a well-traveled highway, and many hungry customers came into his gas station to fill up their bellies while they filled up their cars, so Sanders decided to start selling a hot, home-cooked meal of pan-fried chicken, ham, okra, green beans, and buttermilk biscuits. It was such a hit that he eventually removed the gas pumps and converted his business into a restaurant.
Colonel Sanders was a hothead. (wsimag.com)
Sanders Shot And Wounded a Business Rival
Harland Sanders had a temper that sometimes got out of control. He was particularly cutthroat about his business, using aggressive marketing tactics to attract travelers to his gas station over a nearby one owned by his rival, Matt Stewart, such as painting giant advertisements on surrounding barns. One day, he learned that Stewart was in the process of painting over one of his signs, and when he confronted Stewart, a gunfight ensued. Steward shot and killed a district manager for Shell Oil Company, so Sanders shot Steward, hitting him in the shoulder. Stewart was arrested for murder and sentenced to 18 years in jail while the charges against Sanders were dropped.
The first franchise partnership is memorialized with a double statue. (roadpickle.com)
A New Business Approach
When the highway running past Sanders's restaurant was rerouted, his business took a hit. It didn't matter how good his chicken was if nobody knew it was there, so Sanders took his birds on the road. He journeyed across the country, stopping at restaurants along the way and offering samples. After they tasted the chicken, he negotiated franchise deals with the owners, typically a $0.04 commission on every piece of chicken they sold in exchange for teaching them how to make it. He landed his first franchise agreement with a restaurant in Utah, and soon, restaurants across the country were selling Colonel Sanders's Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Was Colonel Sanders pressured into selling his company? (allthatsinteresting.com)
The Kentucky Fried Chicken Franchise
By 1964, when Colonel Sanders had a multi-million-dollar business and more than 600 restaurants selling his chicken, he earned the notice of a pair of sharp-eyed young lawyers. They pressured the aging colonel to sell his company, and although Sanders refused many times, they eventually wore him down. He sold his company for $2 million on the condition that the new owners keep his recipes intact, and the new owners opened a series of independent chicken restaurants called Kentucky Fried Chicken. Soon after, Sanders sued the company for $112 million because they couldn't keep the one promise he asked for, and as a result, the quality of food had declined. The case was settled out of court, with Sanders receiving $1 million and taking a more hands-on role at KFC, teaching cooks the proper methods for preparing his recipes.
Did Colonel Sanders put a curse on a Japanese baseball team? (entertainment.howstuffworks.com)
The Curse Of The Colonel
Colonel Sanders had become a larger-than-life persona by the time of his death in 1980, and according to some, the phrase can be taken quite literally. Believe it or not, Colonel Sanders is said to be the cause of a curse on a Japanese baseball team. According to legend, after fans of the Hanshin Tigers celebrated their team's championship win in 1985 by stealing a statue of Colonel Sanders from a nearby KFC and throwing it in a river, the Tigers experienced a supernatural slump. Many believed the Tigers would never win another championship until the Colonel was recovered from his watery grave. In 2009, divers did exactly that and restored the statue to its rightful location, but that still has not stopped the curse.