Harland David Sanders always played by the rules — his rules. That served him well throughout his iconic career.
“I’ve only had two rules,” said the founder of the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant chain, known as KFC since 1991. “Do all you can and do it the best you can. It’s the only way you ever get that feeling of accomplishing something.”
And he accomplished a lot — before, during and after his run as owner of the largest fast food chicken enterprise in the world.
Sanders was born Sept. 9, 1890, the eldest of three children. He was compelled at age 5 to care for his siblings when his father died and his mother took a full-time job to provide for the household, often being away from the home for days at a time.
By the age of 7, he had learned how to prepare bread and vegetables and was gaining proficiency in cooking meat for the family. In 1899, his mother remarried, and by age 10, Sanders began working as a farmhand.
In 1903, Sanders, then a seventh grader, dropped out of school. “Algebra’s what drove me off,” he said. As a result of a tumultuous relationship with his stepfather, he left home when he was 13 to paint horse carriages in Indianapolis.
Over the next two and a half decades, Sanders compiled a staggeringly variegated resume of jobs, including wagoner in Cuba for the U.S. Army, blacksmith’s helper, railroad steam engine stoker, insurance salesman, ferryboat captain, chamber of commerce secretary, acetylene lamp manufacturer, cafeteria manager, attorney, streetcar conductor, automobile tire salesman and the male equivalent of a midwife.
The final stop in his occupational perambulations before he landed in the history books for his fried chicken enterprise was as a service station owner in the tiny burg of North Corbin, Ky., where he alighted in 1930.
Sanders fed travelers, up to six at a time, at his own dining table, which he moved to the back of the service station. He was noted for his home-cooked country ham and steak dinners, but soon hit upon his winning recipe of “11 herbs and spices” (scrupulously kept under lock and key to this day), and began dishing up the chicken he fried in an iron skillet.
Famed food critic Duncan Hines happened by the service station and feted the “restaurant” in his 1935 road-food guide, nudging open the floodgates of popularity for the “Colonel’s” signature entree.
In 1939, Sanders perfected and patented a quick-frying technique using pressure cookers and rode the wave of success until his death on Dec. 16, 1980.
He opened a Sanders’ Court & Cafe, a 142-seat roadside restaurant and motel across the street from the filling station in 1940 and ran it until he sold it in 1956, pivoting all his efforts to selling Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises, for which he would receive a fee of 4 cents per chicken.
He actually sold his first franchise in 1952 to Salt Lake City, Utah, restaurant owner Peter Harman, whom he had met at a food seminar. In 1957, Harman pioneered the famous bucket container for larger purchases of chicken. At its peak, the brand boasted more than 24,000 locations throughout the world.
The original location in Corbin was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on Aug. 7, 1990. It was extensively renovated to replicate its look in the 1940s and opened as the Sanders Cafe and Museum in the fall of 1990.
Visitors can enjoy a chicken dinner, browse through shelves and display cases of memorabilia and take a peek at a recreation of the cafe’s original kitchen.
Sanders was bestowed the honorific “Colonel” by the state governor in 1935 and again in 1949. He embraced the title and personified the quintessential Southern gentleman by growing and bleaching a mustache and goatee and appearing in public exclusively wearing his iconic white suit and black string tie.
Still, he was an undeniably feisty character who did not always comport with his benign and congenial public persona. Sanders was known to “swear like a sailor,” a characteristic he freely admitted, albeit in disarming terms. “I used to cuss the prettiest you ever heard,” he said. “I did my cussin’ before women and anybody else, but somehow nobody ever took any offense.”
He also shot a competitor, though mitigating circumstances prevented him from being charged with a crime.
Sanders used to paint advertising signs on barns within a several-mile radius to promote his Shell Oil filling station.
One Matt Stewart, who operated a competing nearby Standard Oil station, painted over Sanders’ signs. Sanders and two Shell Oil executives caught Stewart red-handed, and Stewart pulled a gun and fatally shot the Shell Oil district manager. Sanders returned fire, wounding Stewart in the shoulder. Stewart went to prison for murder, but the initial charges against Sanders were dropped.
Sanders continued his Kentucky Colonel persona in promotions up to the month before his death. He has been since impersonated — never adequately, many would say — by a host of actors and comedians, including Darrell Hammond, Norm Macdonald, Jim Gaffigan, George Hamilton, Rob Lowe, Ray Liotta, Jason Alexander, Peter Weller, Sean Astin and even Reba McEntire.
The Sanders Cafe & Museum, 688 U.S. Highway 25 W., Corbin, Ky., is open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.
For more information, call (606) 528-2163 or visit sanderscafe.com.