Please note that this piece contains a bit of swearing.
The seventh of May 1931 was a hot, dusty day in the mountain town of Corbin, Kentucky. Alongside a dirt road, a service station manager named Matt Stewart stood on a ladder painting a cement railroad wall. His application of a fresh coat of paint was gradually obscuring the sign that had been painted there previously. Stewart paused when he heard an automobile approaching at high speed—or what counted for high speed in 1931.
It was coming from the north—from the swath of backcountry known among locals as “Hell’s Half-Acre.” The area was so named for its primary exports: bootleg booze, bullets, and bodies. The neighborhood was also commonly referred to as “the asshole of creation.”
Stewart probably squinted through the dust at the approaching car, and he probably wiped sweat from his brow with the back of a paint-flecked wrist. He probably knew that the driver would be armed, angry, and about to skid to a stop nearby. Stewart set down his paint brush and picked up his pistol. The car skidded to a stop nearby. But it was not an armed man that emerged—it was three armed men. “Well, you son of a bitch!” the driver shouted at the painter, “I see you done it again.” The driver of the car had been using this particular railroad wall to advertise his service station in town, and this was not the first time that the painter—the manager of a competing station—had installed an ad blocker.
Stewart leapt from his ladder, firing his pistol wildly as he dove for cover behind the railroad wall. One of the driver’s two companions collapsed to the ground. The driver picked up his fallen comrade’s pistol and returned fire. Amid a hail of bullets from his pair of adversaries, the painter finally shouted, “Don’t shoot, Sanders! You’ve killed me!” The dusty roadside shootout fell silent, and indeed the former painter was bleeding from his shoulder and hip. But he would live, unlike the Shell Oil executive lying nearby with a bullet wound to the chest.
This encounter might have been as commonplace as any other gunfight around Hell’s Half-Acre were it not for the identity of the driver. The “Sanders” who put two bullets in Matt Stewart was none other than Harland Sanders, the man who would go on to become the world-famous Colonel Sanders. He was dark-haired and clean-shaven at the time, but his future likeness would one day appear on Kentucky Fried Chicken billboards, buildings, and buckets worldwide. In contrast to most other famous food icons, Colonel Sanders was once a living, breathing person, and his life story is considerably more tumultuous than the white-washed corporate biography suggests.
Harland Sanders was born on 09 September 1890 in the farm community of Henryville, Indiana. It was a town truism that a man didn’t bother to buy a suit until he needed one for his own wedding, and he didn’t bother wearing it again until he needed one in his own casket. In 1895, when Harland was just five years old, his father Wilbur closed his butcher shop early and stumbled home in the middle of the day, feverish and ill. Within days Wilbur wore his suit for the second time.
Harland was raised by his mother Margaret, a strict Christian who constantly warned her children of the evils of alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and whistling on Sundays. By age seven, Harland was routinely expected to cook for his younger siblings while mother was away at work. At age twelve he became squeamish at the sight of the alphabet leaking from English class into math class, and he dropped out of school, never to return. His mother remarried, and her new husband expressed his resentment of the children’s existence by slapping them around for any perceived slight. 13-year-old Harland put his few belongings in a box, crept into the kitchen, snuck out the back door, and set out on his own.
In 1906, young Harland Sanders had found work as a streetcar conductor in New Albany, Indiana when two men struck up a conversation with him regarding the ongoing troubles in Cuba. They were Army recruiters, and by the time their stop arrived they had convinced young Sanders that the Army was the place for him. He promptly enlisted, and he was dispatched to a ship loaded with men and mules bound for Cuba.
Before boarding that ship, the largest body of water Sanders had ever previously seen was “the old swimming hole” back home. He spent the ocean crossing at the ship’s rail, alternating between gaping at the vast Atlantic, and vomiting into it. When Sanders’ commanding officer in Cuba discovered his new recruit was just 16 years old, he discharged the boy and put him on a boat back to the states. Thus ended the future colonel’s military career.
In the early 1900s, the archetypal steely-eyed adventurer was embodied by the railroad engineer, analogous to the jet pilots and astronauts of later decades. Harland Sanders’ sixth-grade education didn’t qualify him for any skilled jobs in the business, but he found work as an “ash doodler” for Southern Railroad, scraping coal ash from steam engines. But Sanders studied the railroad firemen, watching as they shoveled coal into the firebox, and learning how to spread the fuel for maximum efficiency. By age 18 Sanders had reverse-engineered the occupation, and he began filling in for firemen who failed to show up for work. He also adopted the firemen’s lexicon, cultivating an expansive vocabulary of profanities in his everyday conversation. “It’s hard for me not to call a no-good, lazy, incompetent, dishonest SOB by any thing else but his rightful name,” Sanders would later write. With the exception of his filthy language, Sanders was obsessed with cleanliness, and he adopted the unusual practice of dressing himself in white overalls and white cotton gloves. He claimed that he often went home spotless despite working amid coal all day.
It was around this time that Sanders met his beloved Josephine King. Both were regular customers at the same moving-picture house, and after a brief, shy courtship they decided to marry. According to Margaret Sanders—the couple’s future eldest daughter—her mother had no interest in having children. Unfortunately, Josephine was under the impression that her firm resolve was sufficient to suppress reproduction. Margaret was born roughly 40 weeks after the wedding night.
A Pound of Flesh
Sanders worked for various railroads over several years, but his days as a professional fireman were over when he and an engineer were found engaging in terrific fisticuffs under a railroad water tower. History failed to record the cause of the disagreement, nor whether young Sanders blemished his pristine white uniform with blood.
At age 21, Sanders began a law correspondence course, and he studied in a judge’s office in Little Rock. Eventually he found work in the justice of the peace court, hoping to bring some justice to the long-abused poor of the region. He was particularly proud of the time he was able to negotiate better settlements for the mostly-black victims of a train wreck, and of his efforts to stop courts from pressuring defendants into settlements. But his days in justice of the peace court were over when he and his client were found brawling in a courtroom, evidently over unpaid legal fees.
Sanders also spent some years as an independent entrepreneur, launching ventures of varying success. He lost most of his money trying to sell an indoor lighting system based on acetylene gas—the newfangled electrical grid arrived in rural areas sooner than expected. But he earned a small fortune when he established a much-needed steamboat ferry crossing in Jeffersonville, Indiana.
Sanders used the profits to establish a Young Businessmen’s Club in town. One fine Saturday afternoon the club declared that all of the businesses in town would be closed for a picnic in the park. They put out signs announcing the picnic the day prior.
Inside a Jeffersonville barber shop, a customer was enjoying a hot shave when a surly, Sanders-shaped silhouette darkened the door. “The dry-good stores, the grocery store—everybody is closed but you,” Sanders said to the barber. “Why don’t you close?” Apparently other town barbers were nervous about losing their customers to the lone holdout, and they were threatening to desert.
“Whenever I get ready to close my business I’ll put my own sign on my door,” the barber replied, “I’m not goin’ to have you damn fellows closin’ me up.”
The foamy customer in the chair added, “All you fellows is doin’ is gettin’ all the money out of the town you can for yourselves.”
“You come out here, and I’ll make you prove it,” Sanders replied. The customer shot from the chair and squared off with Sanders outside. Sanders presently punched the lather right off the half-shaven fellow’s face. Unfortunately, Sanders’ brand new straw hat—one he bought special for the picnic—was trampled in the commotion. Nevertheless, the picnic was reportedly the “daggonest” Jeffersonville ever saw. Attendees even collected money to replace the ruined hat.
The Incident at the Bridge
In the late 1920s, the Sanders family was living in Camp Nelson, Kentucky, where Harland supported his wife and three children as a salesman for Michelin Tire Company. His commissions were sufficient that he was the proud owner of a new top-of-the-line Maxwell automobile. She was a beauty, with varnished wood-spoked wheels, nickel trim, and a revolutionary new straight-six engine under the hood.
One frosty morning in November of 1926, Sanders was outside tying a tow rope from the back of his Maxwell to the front of the family’s other car, an old Ford Model T1. The Model T was a persnickety thing, especially in the cold, and sometimes it had to be pull-started to get the engine to turn over. Sanders’ 18-year-old son Harland Jr. took the wheel of the Model T, and Sanders Sr. towed him toward the bridge over Hickman Creek. It was a “swinging bridge” designed for horse-drawn carriages, but the Sanders boys frequently crossed it in their horseless alternatives without any trouble. As they crossed the expanse, however, the combined weight of two cars proved to be more than the creaky bridge could bear. When they were about halfway, one of the main cables snapped.
The entire bridge twisted, dumping father and son and family automobiles into the 40-foot-deep gully. Both cars landed upside down, crushing their flimsy canvas roofs. The younger Sanders wriggled out from under the Model T, somehow escaping with only minor cuts and contusions. The senior Sanders crawled out from under his ruined car, fractured, bruised, mud-caked, and bloodied. The two walked back to the house while neighbors gawked from the edge of the gully above. Once he arrived home, Josephine helped her husband put a large loose flap of scalp back where it belonged, doused the wounds in turpentine, and bandaged him up. He had survived, but lacking a working automobile, his employment did not.
Corbin Stories: Part 1
Harland Sanders next found work managing a Standard Oil service station in nearby Nicholasville. He made two cents profit per gallon of gasoline, and he earned interest by selling farm equipment to locals on credit. But a severe drought descended upon the bluegrass region in the late 1920s, ravaging crops and livelihoods. Gasoline demand declined, and customers defaulted on their credit. Then the Wall Street Crash of 1929 smothered what little hope for recovery remained.
Sanders contacted some acquaintances at Shell Oil and leveraged his reputation to lease a new location where fuel demand was higher. They gave him a little station in the town of Corbin, Kentucky. There was no electricity yet, and it was a rough area, but the station had a convenient apartment in the back, and it was near busy U.S. Route 25. This was the “Hell’s Half-Acre” where Sanders later engaged in advertising-related gunplay with Matt Stewart (who, by the way, was sentenced to 18 years for the murder of Shell manager Robert Gibson (though, incidentally, Stewart died just two years into his sentence at the hands of a deputy sheriff (who, according to rumor, was hired to acquire vengeance on behalf of the wealthy Gibson family))).
One night, in the wee hours, Sanders was jolted awake by multiple gunshots outside. Two rival alcohol bootleggers were exchanging bullets and insults in the road in front of Sanders’ place. The shootout was interrupted by the sound of a door crashing open from the nearby service station. A middle-aged man stood just outside the door wearing nothing but his underwear, aiming a large shotgun in their direction. “Line up, both of you sons of bitches and throw down your guns!” Sanders ordered. Being called a son of a bitch was no trifling insult to fellows from those parts in those days, but the shotgun convinced them to comply.
When the sheriff arrived to collect the suspects, he asked Sanders to come back to the county seat with him to serve as a witness. As they sped away, Sanders’ daughter Margaret ran after the car clutching a wad of fabric. “Father!” she shouted, “you forgot your pants!”
Corbin Stories: Part 2
One day in the early 1930s, Josephine and Margaret Sanders were beginning to wonder what was keeping Harland away so long. Last they had seen him, he was riding a mule up the mountain in a downpour, carrying an old lard bucket filled with bandages, scissors, antiseptics, and rubber gloves. He was en route to a nearby Appalachian community which lacked electricity, roads, indoor plumbing, and other modern conveniences. From time to time Sanders brought the families there free food, including full Thanksgiving spreads for entire towns, but most urgently the people needed medical care. He had been summoned because one of the townswomen had gone into labor. Having three children, Sanders had a little experience with childbirth, so he had become a self-styled amateur midwife. But this outing was taking much longer than normal.
Harland interrupted his wife and daughter’s worrying when he burst into the apartment and grabbed his trusty shotgun he kept behind the front door. He explained that it might be necessary to use a little “persuasion.” The baby wasn’t in the proper position in the womb, requiring more experienced intervention. But the allegedly drunken doctor was refusing to go, Hippocrates be damned. Shortly the doctor was appropriately persuaded, and he was seen riding up the mountain astride a wet mule. The doctor manually adjusted the baby’s position, and the delivery proceeded smoothly. The parents named their new son “Harland.”
In 1935 or 1936, in recognition of Sanders’ midwifery work, food donations, and his regular shuttling of townsfolk to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings2, Kentucky governor Ruby Laffoon commissioned Harland Sanders as a “Kentucky Colonel,” the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
Corbin Stories: Part 3
In Corbin, according to Harland Sanders, “Bootleggin’s, fights, and shootin’s was as regular as a rooster’s crowing in the mornin’.” Whether or not this excessive chicken noise informed Sanders’ future career is impossible to say, but Corbin is where he began his gradual transformation into the future famous food icon. The only thing Sanders seemed to enjoy more than swearing was experimenting with cooking. He decided to put a big oak table in a former storeroom and reopen as “Sanders’ Servistation and Café.” Hungry travelers were drawn in by the big advertisements Sanders painted on roadside barns north and south of town. Sanders hired some waitstaff, but he made a point to pay them a living wage, and strictly forbid them from accepting tips. Using the kitchen in the apartment in back, Harland and Josephine cooked up such fare as steak, country ham, potatoes with red-eye gravy, grits, and hot biscuits. Chicken was not often on the menu—it took too long to cook it to Sanders’ satisfaction. But he experimented with it constantly.
It was around this time that Sanders met his beloved Claudia Price, a young divorced woman who lived in Corbin. At Harland’s suggestion, his wife Josephine hired Claudia to help around the café, and it soon became something of an open secret that Claudia was equal parts waitress and mistress. But this silent scandal was marginalized by the growing success of the restaurant. Sanders added a small luxury motel to the property in 1937, the first one east of the Mississippi, according to Sanders. He even rubbed elbows with renowned food critic Duncan Hines of modern cake mix fame, who gave Sanders’ place a glowing review in his travel book.
For entertainment, Sanders would occasionally take customers around back to listen to a braying jackass—an actual braying jackass that occupied an adjacent lot, not a New Yorker. “HEE HAW,” the jackass would say. This was, from all reports, a thigh-slappingly good time. Affordable diversion was scarce in the Great Depression.
Sanders also kept a pet crow on the premises that the staff named “Jim Crow.” Motel guests could drop a penny in their pant cuff and stroll around the yard, and Jim would hop behind them, pecking and probing until he got the penny out, much to the amusement of onlookers. Nobody knew what Jim did with the pennies until some years later, when Sanders was renovating the hotel. He tore out a staircase and it paid off like a penny slot.
It was around this time that Sanders met his beloved Bertha. Bertha was his nickname for his first pressure cooker, a new contraption that rapidly cooked vegetables using high temperatures and pressures. Sanders wondered whether this might be the key to frying chicken quickly without sacrificing quality. He added pressure relief valves to Bertha so it would be safe for frying, and spent years experimenting with various marinades, oils, temperatures, types of flour, and seasonings. By July 1940, Sanders had developed a system to fry chicken to golden brown in about eight minutes, and he’d perfected his long-evolving spice spectrum by adding an eleventh ingredient. He had also invented a “cracklin’ gravy” which took advantage of the bits of breading left in the oil after frying, and it was rumored to have been among the finest things one can put in one’s mouth. But his discoveries would have to wait for the world to sort some things out.
The Secret City
In the cold of an early December Sunday afternoon in
1942 1941, the Sanders family were sitting in Margaret’s home listening to music on the radio when the broadcast was interrupted by a special news bulletin. An announcer informed listeners that Pearl Harbor was being bombed by the Empire of Japan. The United States was at war.
At 52 years old, Sanders was too old to serve his country, but he could still serve a small portion of it. He left the restaurant in the care of his mistress Claudia and traveled all the way out to the remote town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee where the government had hastily erected a sprawling, state-of-the-art facility on what had previously been farmland. Sanders met up with his friend Jo Clemmons, the manager of a local cafeteria, and formally accepted a position as Assistant Manager.
Although he worked there until nearly the end of the war, Sanders had no idea how the thousands of men and women of Oak Ridge spent their days. They never openly discussed their work, even with the affable Sanders. Only later would he learn that those workers were scientists and engineers, and that they had been developing their own secret recipe: uranium-235. They had spent years heating chunks of the metal to high temperatures, then pushing its vapors through membranes, then spinning it in massive magnetic chambers, all to isolate a few kilograms of the special isotope. In 1945, the stuff was packed into the Little Boy bomb, loaded onto the Enola Gay, flown to Japan, and dropped on Hiroshima. It was the first atomic weapon ever deployed in war.
The Colonel Has Arrived
In 1952, Harland Sanders decided to visit Australia. Much had changed in his life after the war. Harland and Josephine had divorced after 39 years, and Sanders married his long-time employee and mistress Claudia. Governor Wetherby recommissioned him as a Kentucky Colonel in honor of his cuisine, and this time Sanders fully embraced the honorific. He began introducing himself as “Colonel Sanders,” and he started to put together his signature look, growing a salt-and-pepper goatee and wearing black frock suits with a Kentucky-style string tie. With so much changing in his life, he thought he ought to change his vocabulary to match the southern gentleman motif he was trying for, which meant the elimination of profanity. This was why he was traveling to Australia, where he hoped that a big religious conference could cure his habit. But he had a stop to make in Utah first.
Wearing some early iteration of his evolving ensemble, 62-year-old Colonel Sanders stepped off a train in Salt Lake City and went to the Do Drop Inn, a newly renovated hamburger stand owned by Pete Harman. Sanders had met Harman at a restaurant convention in Chicago, and the Colonel liked young Harman at once, mostly because Harman seemed to be the only other person at the convention who rejected alcohol.
Sanders asked Harman to give him a ride to a local grocer, and there the Colonel acquired some frozen chickens and an armful of seasonings. He was planning to fry up a batch of the “secret recipe” chicken he had perfected prior to the war, hoping that Harman would sign up to franchise the recipe. Franchising was still a novel concept, and Sanders’ idea was to convince already-established restaurants to add his chicken and gravy to their existing menus. They would subscribe to a premixed herbs-and-spices service, paying a nickel a bird to gain access to the recipes and techniques.
The Colonel cooked his chicken in Harman’s kitchen in a borrowed pressure cooker. Fried chicken was not a common entrée around those parts in those days, so the Do Drop crew were wary. Sanders presented a large serving dish of his signature chicken; they looked at it as though it were a heap of ambiguously seasoned dinosaur descendants. They ate it, but they didn’t seem to know what to make of it. Colonel Sanders got back on the train and headed to San Francisco to catch his flight to Australia.
Two weeks later, on his way back home, Claudia rendezvoused with her husband in San Francisco, and Sanders decided she ought see Pete Harman’s new place. They disembarked from the train in Salt Lake and headed for the Do Drop, and there they were confronted with a massive sign painted on the large windows reading, “Kentucky Fried Chicken—Something New, Something Different.”
“I’ll be Goddamned,” Sanders said. The convention in Australia hadn’t helped.
Sneaky Pete Harman had evidently cataloged the eleven secret ingredients that the Colonel had purchased, and he had reverse-engineered the pressure frying process. The name “Kentucky Fried Chicken” came from the sign painter, who suggested it when Harman was unsure how to refer to the Colonel’s creation. Somehow Sanders was not infuriated by this apparent underhandedness (or, at least, that was the story eventually agreed upon). With the surprise reappearance of the Colonel, Harman agreed to officially franchise—the first person to do so—and Sanders laid claim to the name “Kentucky Fried Chicken.” They sealed the deal with a handshake. Harman soon invented the infamous “bucket meal” and opened additional locations. Within five years his annual restaurant revenue multiplied twenty-fold.
In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, authorizing the expenditure of $25 billion to construct over 40,000 miles of the Interstate Highway System. This was to be the largest public works project America had ever seen.
The Sanders hotel and restaurant complex was already struggling—the state had relocated a key junction on Route 25, and Sanders’ location was no longer as convenient for travelers. But the Colonel knew he was in serious trouble when the newspaper published the surveyed routes for these newfangled “freeways.” Interstate 75 would replace Route 25 as the local traffic artery, but it would pass seven miles outside town. With the irrecoverable loss of passersby, Sanders sold the property for a fraction of what it had been worth a year earlier. Aged 66, Harland Sanders was back to square one, with no income apart from a few franchise fees and $105 per month in social security.
Sanders began courting chicken franchisees in earnest. He would drive to a town with good prospects, park his Oldsmobile on the outskirts, and spend the night asleep in the backseat. He brought with him everything he needed to demonstrate his process—an icebox full of chickens, cake flour, newly-patented pressure cookers, boxes of premixed spices, vegetable oil, and fire extinguishers. He fried his chicken for the staffs of receptive restaurants, and if they took a shine to it, he cooked a quantity for customers. He would then stroll through the restaurant inquiring how diners were enjoying their meals, dressed in his fully formed Colonel regalia—a silver goatee, black string tie, a cane, and a pristine white suit just like back in his railroad days.
One restaurant that decided to franchise early was The Hobby House in Fort Wayne, Indiana. There, Colonel Sanders befriended head cook Dave Thomas. The seasoned veteran took young Thomas under his wing, providing the novice with sage advice and mentoring him in the ways of the restaurant. Thomas would go on to manage several successful Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises. Later Thomas founded his own franchise, a hamburger chain called Wendy’s that has enjoyed some success.
Colonel Sanders’ business grew in trials and errors and fits and starts. The work was taxing for the almost-70-year-old Sanders, causing considerable cantankerousness. One unknown morning in some unknown town, he and Claudia stopped at a diner for some breakfast. When the waitress set the Colonel’s plate before him, he blanched at the flaccid, undercooked eggs. “Miss,” he said, “I was never drunk enough to eat eggs raw as that. And I asked that they be turned over.”
“That’s right, you did,” she said. “I’ll take them right back.” She was gone for a few moments, and then returned with the plate. The eggs indeed looked more thoroughly cooked, though the Colonel reckoned this to be a physical impossibility given the time that had elapsed. He flipped the eggs over, and confirmed his suspicion: One side was still untouched by the grill; the cook had merely turned the eggs over on the plate.
In the kitchen, the cook was sitting on a table smoking a cigarette when the double swinging doors burst open to reveal a curiously-dressed man. The intruder was wearing a white linen suit, black string tie, and a silver goatee. He had a breakfast plate in hand. “You son of a bitch,” the uninvited guest said, “You think you’re smart turnin’ those eggs over on my plate?”
“Don’t call me a son of a bitch,” the cook said, standing up from the table. “Get out of my kitchen.”
“I’ll do just that,” Sanders said, tipping the eggs from his plate into his upturned palm, “and leave your eggs with you.” Colonel Sanders cocked his arm back, and projected the fistful of breakfast at the object of his scorn, like a wizard casting a poultry hex. The eggs sailed, egg-like, across the expanse between them. The floppy projectiles struck the cook dead in the center of his chest in a spattering burst of raw yellow yolk.
Back at her table, Claudia was startled as the kitchen doors burst outward, and her husband backed quickly out into the dining area. He was holding a small stool in a defensive posture and shouting at the yolk-soaked cook, who emerged from the kitchen with a knife clenched in his hand. Sanders disgorged a cornucopia of vulgarities relating to supernatural deities, bodily excretions, procreation, and the temperament and marital status of his assailant’s parents—suspending his profane tirade for a moment to apologize to a couple of diners who were taken aback by the spectacle. The grill man eventually gave up his attack and returned to the kitchen, having accomplished his intended intimidation. The Colonel returned his stool to the floor, and he and Claudia decided that they probably ought to take their dining business elsewhere.
Despite the slow initial progress in signing up franchisees, interest in Kentucky Fried Chicken began to improve in the late 50s and early 60s. Word had gotten out regarding Pete Harman’s success—by then he was doing brisk business at multiple locations. Colonel Sanders’ company had also launched a number of innovative carry-out locations which omitted the dining area. The food was packed into boxes and buckets so customers could take it home for dinner, and the concept was proving popular.
The Colonel’s meticulously anachronistic attire and twinkle-eyed charm helped him gain a foothold via organic marketing. He began to visit local radio stations to tell his story, and occasionally he appeared on television talk shows and the like. His face and signature string tie were appearing on increasingly numerous signs and food packages, and people began to recognize him in public. “I never liked the idea of using my photograph on things,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I had always referred to my face as my mug. But I did have a line drawing made for use in advertising, and when I saw it on the boxes containing my food I nearly fainted.”
By 1962, there were hundreds of restaurants in North America sending fees to 72-year-old Sanders, most of the deals sealed with a handshake and maintained on the honor system. Franchise applicants eventually became so numerous that Sanders no longer went out to meet them; rather, he cordially summoned them to his estate in Shelbyville, Kentucky.
The City Slicker
In October of 1963, a 29-year-old lawyer named John Y. Brown, Jr. was pretty sure he knew what Colonel Sanders ought to do with the finally-profitable Kentucky Fried Chicken, Incorporated: He should sell it to John Y. Brown, Jr.
Brown had been working with Sanders as an upstart franchisee, but he had greater ambitions. Brown saw a company that was making over $300,000 per year with a staff of 17. The Colonel wasn’t much of a fan of paid advertising, and Brown felt there was a fortune to be had by acquiring the company and instituting an aggressive sales campaign. He convinced the Colonel to join him in a meeting with Jack Massey, a businessman from Nashville. “Colonel,” Massey said, “you’re 74 years old. You’ve developed a wonderful product in Kentucky Fried Chicken. And you’ve worked hard doing it, but now is the time for you to relax.”
Relaxing was not among the Colonel’s talents. “A man will rust out quicker than he’ll wear out,” is something he was fond of saying. According to Sanders, he dismissed the “city slicker” and his offer, probably with a flourish of profanity, but the pair soon returned. He declined again, they returned again. Employing the time-tested method of erosion, they wore him down over a period of months. They told him the tax burden on his estate would be astronomical if he died while he still owned the company, robbing his daughters of inheritance. They told him it would be a disaster to sell to the franchisees as he had planned; the company would tear itself apart. They told him they would respect the way he had always done things, treating franchisees like partners and treating the recipes like gospel. They told him a lot of things.
Brown and Massey convinced Sanders to meet with Pete Harman and some of the other long-time, trusted franchisees to see how they felt about him selling the company. To Sanders’ surprise, they recommended he sell. This may have had something to do with the 25,000 shares of stock Brown and Massey had offered each of these franchisees, along with seats on the board. In a meeting that dragged until two o’clock in the morning, Sanders finally caved to a provisional deal: Sell for $2 million, and collect a $40,000 annual salary to remain as the quality controller and goodwill ambassador. The agreement excluded a few regions that had already been promised to friends and family, including Canada, which Sanders wanted to keep for himself. Sanders would later say that he had asked about getting some stock as part of the deal, but the buyers advised against it for tax reasons. He decided to trust them.
Despite considerable consternation, Sanders signed the sales agreement, collected the first $500,000 installment from Massey, and entrusted his life’s work with the city slickers. Sanders would hold the company’s stock as collateral until the full $2 million was paid. He settled into the role of spokesperson rather than decision-maker, taking comfort in the new owners’ reassurances that they would not compromise on the quality of the business or the product.
The compromises at the new Kentucky Fried Chicken, Inc. began almost immediately. The company bought out many of the existing franchises, and ordered the remaining owners to conform: They must remove their own menu items, rename their restaurant “Kentucky Fried Chicken,” update the decor to the red-and-white-striped corporate branding, and use signage and packaging featuring the Colonel’s mug.
The new advertising campaign was indeed aggressive, and financially successful. The Colonel appeared personally in TV commercials, as well as on The Johnny Carson Show, Lawrence Welk, and other such talk show spots. “Wherever you see a picture of this mug of mine, you know you’re going to get good food,” he would say. “At least, good chicken!” Sanders was uneasy with the changes being made within the company, but he was paid to be the goodwill ambassador, so he spread goodwill.
Although the sales contract had set aside Canada as the Colonel’s own territory, legal minds in the new corporation soon realized that the wording left them wiggle room—the contract granted the Colonel exclusive rights to process chicken in Canada, but no restrictions on merchandising it. So as long as they pre-processed the chicken they could legally sell it in the Colonel’s exclusive Canadian market. When corporate officers later came to Sanders and asked him to hand over the collateral stock so the company could go public, he refused until they revised the sales contract to close the Canada loophole. In the meantime he continued to spread goodwill on television, probably through clenched teeth.
Jack Massey, the original $2 million investor who controlled 60% of the company stock, ordered the headquarters moved out of Colonel Sanders’ expansive estate in Shelbyville to a new building in Tennessee. “This ain’t no goddamn Tennessee Fried Chicken,” the Colonel protested, “no matter what some slick, silk-suited son of a bitch says.” But Sanders had sold his company to the ‘slick, silk-suited son of a bitch’ in question, so harsh language was about the only legal recourse available.
The Booze Hounds
In the early 1970s, Colonel Sanders was informed that Kentucky Fried Chicken and its 3,500+ franchises had been acquired by Heublein Inc., a company best known for distributing Smirnoff vodka. As someone who spent his entire life rallying against liquor (finger lickers notwithstanding), this was an insufferable affront. Once the $285 million buyout was complete, the company was flush with new millionaires. But Colonel Sanders was not among them. He held no stock.
When the great insatiable corporate belly began to grumble, company cooks and chemists were allegedly directed to seek out ways to reduce the expenses associated with the secret-recipe spice spectrum. Fewer and cheaper ingredients would accumulate into millions in savings. Cooking the cracklin’ gravy was particularly demanding, so a powdered alternative was introduced. Despite his role as so-called quality controller, Colonel Sanders was not kept abreast of these changes, but he did receive letters from fans asking him why he kept changing his recipes.
In the meantime, Heublein was growing concerned about a new “crispy” offering from competing Church’s chicken. Executives decided to roll out “Extra Crispy” chicken with more breading and fewer spices, renaming the Colonel’s recipe to “Original Recipe.” The Colonel described the new offering as a “damn fried doughball stuck on some chicken,” and he said he didn’t want his name and likeness associated with it. But his preferences didn’t seem to hold much sway with the new owners of his name and likeness, and they went ahead and slapped his face on boxes of “Colonel Sanders’ Extra Crispy Chicken.”
In an effort to restore his reputation as a cook, Harland and Claudia opened The Colonel’s Lady, a new restaurant that occupied the space in their home that was vacated when headquarters was moved to Tennessee. Fried chicken was on the menu, among other things, but it was unclear whether it was “secret recipe” chicken. According to Sanders’ daughter Margaret, Heublein claimed that they owned his face, the name ‘Colonel’, and his food creations, and began legal proceedings to shutter the fledgling business. Colonel Sanders doubled down, suing the “booze hounds” for using his likeness to promote products he did not develop, and for interfering with his new business. “I’m not too proud of my name being associated with some of my restaurants,” he was quoted as saying in the Milwaukee Journal. “Everybody thinks I’m Kentucky Fried Chicken. They don’t know these other fellows who really run things. […] I only want to find out how much of my body and soul they own.”
Sanders and Heublein finally settled out of court. Heublein paid Sanders $1 million, and agreed to stop interfering with his new endeavor. Sanders agreed to change his restaurant’s name to Claudia Sanders Dinner House. That restaurant is still in operation today.
Japan of the 1970s was evidently a land untouched by turkeys. As a consequence, when Western expatriates sought out holiday poultry, chicken was the nearest available analogue. When the marketing department of Kentucky Fried Chicken discovered this, they launched a “Kentucky for Christmas” advertising campaign in Japan, suggesting that viewers visit one of their local Kentucky Fried Chicken locations on December 25, an otherwise unremarkable day in the 99% non-Christian nation. The delightfully alliterative invitation was surprisingly persuasive to the Japanese and expatriates alike, and the Kentucky for Christmas tradition persists to this day. Around the holidays, scores of people in Japan spend hours waiting in chicken lines, and Colonel Sanders acts as a stand-in Santa Claus.
In the 1970s, Colonel Sanders was sent to Japan several times to pay promotional visits to hundreds of Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises. At each location he encountered a life-sized molded-plastic Colonel Sanders doppelgänger, its hands outstretched in a welcoming pose. One of these statues was famously flung into the Dōtonbori River by riotous celebrators when the Hanshin Tigers baseball team won the Japan Championship Series in 1985. The team’s performance declined sharply in subsequent years, an effect which local legend attributes to the “Curse of the Colonel,” a supernatural punishment for defiling the Colonel’s graven image. It was believed that the team was doomed to lose every Japan League Championship until the Colonel was recovered from the river and restored to its rightful place.
As Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises popped up around the world, 86-year-old Colonel Sanders crisscrossed the globe to attend grand openings and other special events. He was fond of paying surprise quality control visits to franchises as he passed through cities. If the chicken was lackluster, the gravy substandard, or the cleanliness of the facility short of impeccable, an earful of criticism awaited the local management.
On one occasion in 1976, at a franchise in Bowling Green, Kentucky, staff stood anxiously awaiting the Colonel’s assessment as he sampled the day’s gravy. “How do you serve this Goddamned slop,” he demanded, “with a straw?” A reporter for the Courier-Journal later quoted him as saying, “My God, that gravy is horrible. They buy tap water for 15 to 20 cents a thousand gallons and then they mix it with flour and starch and end up with pure wallpaper paste.”
This insult was more than the Bowling Green franchisee was prepared to bear, and they filed a defamation suit against the man whose face graced the front of their store. The court eventually threw out the case, ruling that the Colonel was clearly discussing Kentucky Fried Chicken in general rather than their restaurant in particular. Heublein could have sued the Colonel for libel, or even fired him, but customers still responded positively to his advertisements and appearances, so the company opted not to throw the baby out with the gravy water. “Let’s face it,” a company executive was quoted as saying in The New Yorker, “the Colonel’s gravy was fantastic but you had to be a Rhodes Scholar to cook it.”
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In April of his 89th year, Colonel Sanders was dispatched to Japan for yet another promotional tour. He made personal appearances in hundreds of stores, and posed for photographs with thousands of individual fans. He felt unusually exhausted upon his return home. As weeks passed the exhaustion didn’t diminish, and several weeks later he was diagnosed with acute leukemia. Sanders spent the next few months in and out of the hospital, still making public appearances when he was able. He knew that his end was coming soon, and he implored the franchisees to remain open on that day when it finally came. The people must not be deprived of chicken.
The Colonel had become interested in religion in his later years, and one day he asked a reverend whether God could help cure him of his foul language. “What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them,” the reverend quoted from the Bible in reply. So the Colonel prayed. He said that he then felt as though a great weight was lifted from his shoulders. His troubles with profanity were finally over. Not to say that he stopped his constant cursing, far from it—but from then on he would say a silent prayer for forgiveness immediately following the vulgarities, and that seemed to do the trick.
Harland Sanders died on 16 December 1980 at the age of 90. His casket was put on display in the rotunda of the Kentucky State Capitol building where mourners and dignitaries paid their respects. The governor of Kentucky, one John Y. Brown, Jr., gave the eulogy.
Sanders’ daughter Margaret went on to write an account of her upbringing titled The Colonel’s Secret: Eleven Herbs and a Spicy Daughter. In it, she explained how she was her father’s favorite child, and she credited herself for some of the pivotal innovations that led to the success of Kentucky Fried Chicken. It also included a curious quantity of details about her father’s sex life, including an anecdote from the night of her own conception. But other Sanders relatives are quick to point out that Margaret’s version of events is not universally agreed upon.
Kentucky Fried Chicken today—officially shortened to “KFC” in 1991—is a subsidiary of Yum! Brands, and headquarters was moved back to Kentucky years ago. As of this writing, KFC is the second largest restaurant chain in the world, with about 19,000 locations selling ambiguously seasoned dinosaur descendants to humans on every continent except Antarctica.
Independent laboratory testing has suggested that the only seasonings in modern KFC are salt, pepper, sugar, and MSG, despite corporate claims to the contrary. And although Sanders had always insisted on frying with vegetable oil for the best flavor, in the 1990s the company switched to cheaper palm and soybean oils. Crass caricatures of the Colonel appear on television promoting crass caricatures of his food. And the current, corporatized biography of Colonel Sanders’ life has been watered down more than a Bowling Green gravy.
One can only imagine how Harland Sanders would respond to the continued use of his name and likeness in the modern manifestation of his restaurants. He would probably have a thing or two to say about supernatural deities, bodily excretions, procreation, and the temperament and marital status of executives’ parents. He would probably make every attempt to legally bar the company from putting his face on buildings, buckets, and boxes containing the impostor products. And, failing all else, he probably would have challenged those ‘slick, silk-suited sons of bitches’ to some terrific fisticuffs—to settle the matter of who owns his body and soul once and for all.
On 10 March 2009, workers building a boardwalk on the Dōtonbori River in Osaka, Japan encountered a strange, barrel-sized object lodged deep in the wet soil. They extracted it from the river and hosed it off. The object that slowly emerged from the mud was splotchy gray, the enamel having worn off years earlier, but it was the unmistakable shape of the torso, head, and arms of a Colonel Sanders statue. The right hand and the legs were soon found on the river bottom nearby.
Japanese KFC officials cleaned and reassembled the pieces, arranged for some Shinto curse-breaking rituals, and placed the mottled, mostly-complete effigy in a clear protective case at a KFC branch near the statue’s original location. There he patiently awaits a reunion with his still-missing left hand and eyeglasses, which will lift the Curse of the Colonel according to local legend. In the meantime, employees turn the Sanders statue to face the television whenever the Tigers are playing a televised game. To this day they still haven’t won another Japan League Championship.
2 Although Sanders referred to these meetings as ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ in his autobiography, they may have been a precursor or related program.
Update: Approximately three weeks after this was published, KFC announced their intention to “re-colonelize,” and go “back to the hard way”. Coincidence?