Drivers pulling off the Interstate for a quick meal might be induced to make it KFC, or Kentucky Fried Chicken, in the hopes of savoring a home-style Southern dinner. Although its name might inspire nostalgia for the Bluegrass State, Kentucky Fried Chicken first opened its doors in South Salt Lake, Utah in 1952. That restaurant was a franchise sold by Harland Sanders, a 62-year-old native of Henryville, Indiana. Neither a Kentuckian by birth, nor a military colonel, KFC founder Sanders dressed the part of the Kentucky Colonel, a state honor conferred on him by two different Kentucky governors.
Although the iconic figure in the white linen suit came to represent Kentucky worldwide, his Indiana origins remain somewhat obscure. Having been born to a farming family in Henryville in 1890, Sanders’ father died when the boy was only five, leaving him to cook and care for his younger siblings when his mother went to work in a canning factory. When his mother remarried, the family relocated to Greenwood, Indiana, although conflicts with his stepfather soon sent the twelve-year-old Sanders back to Henryville on his own.
Having quit school after the sixth grade, he took a job as a farmhand, going on to work as a streetcar conductor in New Albany and an insurance salesman in Jeffersonville. Before putting Kentucky on the map, Sanders’ exploits in the Hoosier state included starting a steamboat ferry company operating on the Ohio River between Jeffersonville and Louisville and working as the secretary of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce.
After stints working on the railroad and practicing law (having earned a law degree by correspondence course), Harlan Sanders wound up in Corbin, Kentucky, where in 1929 he opened a service station. In addition to pumping gas, Sanders offered home-cooked meals for sale to his customers, who were particularly fond of his pan-fried chicken. Sanders expanded the business into a café, sped up orders with a pressure cooker and did a profitable business on Corbin’s main drag for more than twenty years.
His cuisine merited a mention by esteemed food critic Duncan Hines and won the commendations of two governors—earning him the honorific “Colonel”. Sanders Café’s clientele dropped off considerably in the fifties, however, when the new Interstate bypassed the restaurant. Selling the property at a significant loss, Sanders focused his energies on the possibilities of the franchise, just as that business model was taking off. Having contracted with 600 franchisees, Sanders sold the business in 1964, though he continued to serve as the company’s spokesman.
In his later years, Sanders was known to drop in on KFC outlets around the country for random quality control checks. He was known to be critical of the product in its later incarnations, to the extent that he sued the holding company in 1974. Testifying at 87 against mandatory retirement before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Aging, Sanders passed away three years later in Shelbyville, Kentucky. Before his burial, Sanders’ body lay in state in the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort.