Many people today know Colonel Sanders as the brand ambassador or face of the world-famous Kentucky Fried Chicken fast food chain, however, what might not be known is that the honorary Kentucky Colonel found the restaurant at a service station after having tried his hand at almost everything. Here is the inspirational story of the man and the “Finger Lickin’ Good” restaurant that will forever remain synonymous with him.
Colonel Sanders was born Harland Davis Sanders, the first of three children to Margaret Ann (nee Dunlevy) and Wilbur David, on the 9th of December, 1890 in Henryville, Indiana. Sanders spent his early formative years with both of his parents until he lost his father in 1895. His mother was left to cater for the family and this inadvertently gave the very young Sanders the responsibility of looking after his young siblings.
As the story goes, Sanders, at around the age of 7, was said to have already gained some culinary skills since he had to cook for himself and his siblings while their mother went to work at a tomato cannery. At around the age of 10, he found work as a farmhand before having to move to Greenwood, Indiana in 1902 since his mother remarried. Sanders’ life went off track at this point as he and his stepfather had a tumultuous relationship that contributed to him dropping out of school and leaving home at the age of 13.
To survive, Colonel Sanders did several menial jobs that included working as a farmhand. He later moved to live with his uncle who helped him get a job as a streetcar conductor. In 1906, Sanders falsified his date of birth to be able to enlist in the United States Army. He completed his service commitment as a wagoner in Cuba and was honorably discharged the following year. Sanders then went back to working menial jobs; from serving as a blacksmith’s helper to cleaning out the ash pans of trains before rising to a fireman (steam engine stoker).
While still working as a fireman with the Illinois Central Railroad Company, Colonel Sanders studied law via night classes by correspondence through La Salle Extension University, Chicago, Illinois. Sanders later graduated and worked as a lawyer in Little Rock, Arkansas, for three years before his legal career came to an abrupt end following a brawl in the courtroom between him and his client. Sanders went back to working as a fireman before he was able to land a life insurance sales job, first with Prudential Life Insurance Company and later with Mutual Benefit Life.
Sanders next line of work was establishing a ferry boat company that operated on the Ohio River between Jefferson and Louisville. Following the immediate success of the company, Sanders took up the position of secretary at the Chamber of Commerce in Columbus, Indiana, however, he only lasted less than a year on the job before quitting. He later sold his shares to the ferry boat company and invested in an acetylene lamp manufacturing company. This time around, Sanders investments did not pay off, forcing him to again take a sales job, this time with the Michelin Tire Company. He later ran a service station belonging to Standard Oil of Kentucky but that station closed as a result of the Great Depression.
Kentucky Fried Chicken
In 1930, Colonel Sanders was able to take control of a service station in North Corbin, Kentucky that was owned by the Shell Oil Company. He put his culinary skills to good use here as he began serving meals like chicken, country ham and steaks to customers. Sanders’ food gained a huge following in the area, however, he had local competition from another restaurant, which hindered his growth. Sanders and this said competitor, Matt Stewart, were later involved in a shootout that led to the killing of a Shell Company employee. This resulted in a murder conviction for Stewart and left Sanders with no more competition as his popularity soared. It was during this time that Kentucky governor Ruby Laffoon commissioned him as a Kentucky Colonel.
Despite the early success, Sanders’ restaurant business slowed down in 1941 following the rationing of gas due to the United States’ involvement in World War II. He abandoned his shop and went on to work as a cafeteria manager for the government at an ordnance works in Tennessee. In 1952, Sanders made the first step in making KFC what it is today, by franchising his recipe to restaurants across the United States for a fee of $0.04 per chicken sold. By the mid-1960s, KFC had branches in Mexico, Canada, and Jamaica as he obtained a patent to protect his recipe and also trademarked the phrase “It’s Finger Lickin’ Good”. After a few years, he later decided to sell the corporation and become a salaried brand ambassador as the rest became history.
Colonel Sanders Family
At around the age of 19, Colonel Sanders married his first wife, Josephine King. The couple had three children; a son Harland David Sanders Jr., and two daughters, Margaret Sanders and Mildred Sanders Ruggles before parting ways in 1947. This gave room for him to marry his longterm mistress, Claudia Ledington-Price, who had been working as the manager of his restaurant in 1949.