Original publish date: September 10, 2015
Colonel Harland Sanders died 35 years ago this week (December 16, 1980) but lately he’s been getting more TV face time than Abe Vigoda, Kirk Douglas and Zsa Zsa Gabor combined (who are all still alive, at least at the time of this writing). The Colonel has proven so popular in fact, that two former Saturday Night Lives are battling over who will portray him in the flesh in Kentucky Fried Chicken commercials. My wife and I love those TV ads; our kids think they are creepy. Colonel Sanders is perhaps the best known recurring fast food namesake our country has ever known. He is also a lot more complicated than he looks.
For example, did you know that Colonel Sanders, founder of KENTUCKY Fried Chicken was born in Indiana? Yep, Sanders was born on September 9, 1890 in a four-room house located 3 miles east of Henryville, Indiana. His father died when Harland was only 5 years old and by the age of seven Sanders was a skilled cook out of necessity. Sanders’ mother remarried in 1902, and the family moved to Greenwood, Indiana. Young Harland didn’t get along very well with his new stepfather. In 1903 he dropped out of seventh grade and soon he was working full time painting horse carriages in Indianapolis. When he was 14 he moved to southern Indiana and worked on a farm for a couple of years. In 1905, he moved in with an uncle in New Albany.
After leaving New Albany in late 1906, he joined the United States Army in Alabama (where another of his uncles lived) and was trained as a teamster / mule minder for a few months. He then became a blacksmith, then ash-pan cleaner, then steam engine stoker for the Northern Alabama Railroad. He married, moved to Jackson Tennessee and went to work as a fireman for the Illinois Central railroad while going to law school at night. He got in a fight with a co-worker and lost his job. The family moved to Little Rock Arkansas and Harland went to work for the Rock Island Railroad while he finished up his law degree. He practiced law in Little Rock for three years before he lost that gig after he got in a fight in the courtroom-with his own client! From there, it was back to Henryville where the Sanders clan moved in with Harland’s mother. Sanders went to work as a laborer on the Pennsylvania Railroad.
In 1916, the Sanders family moved to Jeffersonville, where Sanders got a job selling life insurance for Prudential. Sanders was eventually fired for insubordination. He moved to Louisville and got a sales job with Mutual Benefit Life of New Jersey. During this time, Sanders was sort of an ad-hoc doctor which contemporaries described as a “Helpful but technically unlicensed” obstetrician, delivering babies with rudimentary supplies like lard and Vaseline. In 1920, Sanders established a ferry boat company on the Ohio River between Jeffersonville and Louisville. The ferry was an instant success. In around 1922 he took a job as secretary at the Chamber of Commerce in Columbus, Indiana. He admitted to not being very good at the job, and resigned after less than a year. Sanders cashed in his ferry boat company shares for $22,000 and used the money to establish a company manufacturing acetylene lamps for automobiles. The venture failed after Delco introduced an electric lamp that they sold on credit.
Sanders moved to Winchester, Kentucky, to work as a salesman for the Michelin Tire Company. He lost his job in 1924 due in large part to his fiery temper. In 1924, by chance, he met the general manager of Standard Oil of Kentucky, who asked him to run a service station in Nicholasville. In 1930, the station closed as a result of the Great Depression. That same year, the Shell Oil Company offered Sanders a service station in North Corbin, Kentucky rent free, in return for paying them a percentage of sales.
It was here that Sanders began to serve chicken dishes and other meals such as country ham and steaks to weary travelers. Initially he served the customers in his adjacent living quarters before opening a restaurant. Oh, and if his bio hasn’t grabbed you by now, maybe your ears will prick up when I tell you that it was while working at his Shell station / restaurant combo where Colonel Harland Sanders, American icon, once shot a man.
The stretch of road where Sanders’ first restaurant was located in Corbin, Kentucky was on a nasty stretch of highway known as “Hell’s Half-Acre.” The region was full of bootleggers, and there were plenty of gunfights to keep things lively. Sanders kept a gun beneath his cash register and a shotgun near his bed to protect his family and his business. Turns out, Sanders didn’t need to worry about desperadoes, he had enough trouble just dealing with the competition. Sanders had his hands full just keeping an eye on his rival down the street, a man named Matt Stewart. Stewart ran a competing Standard Oil gas station down the road from Sanders, and the two men just didn’t exactly get along.
The ever enterprising Sanders decided to advertise his “Sanders Superior Gas Station” by painting a sign on a nearby railroad wall. Stewart didn’t like this move and promptly painted over Sanders’ sign. Furious, Sanders threatened to shoot off Stewart’s head and proceeded to repaint his billboard. But Matt Stewart was a stubborn fellow, so he grabbed a brush and started slapping paint on Sanders’ new sign.
Sanders was in the middle of a meeting with two Shell officials named Robert Gibson and H.D. Shelburne when the news of Stewart’s whitewash reached him. Determined to put a stop to Stewart’s shenanigans once and for all, the trio grabbed their loaded guns, jumped in a car, and drove off to settle the issue. They found Stewart perched on a ladder, paintbrush in hand. Sanders jumped out of the car and yelled, “Well, you son-of-a—–, I see you done it again.” Stewart jumped down from the ladder, pulled out his pistol and promptly fired five shots, three of which went directly into Robert Gibson’s heart, killing him instantly.
The Colonel said he grabbed the fallen man’s gun and started shooting back (even though he was carrying a pistol of his own). Stewart ducked behind the disputed railroad wall and for a moment appeared to be winning the gunfight. The Colonel went one way and Shelburne the other and the duo soon had Matt Stewart in a crossfire. Shelburne shot Stewart in the hip and Sanders shot him in the shoulder. A local newspaper article described Sanders’ actions as: “he jumped into the breach and under withering fire grabbed his fallen comrade’s gun . . . [and] the future Colonel unloaded with true aim and hurled hot lead into Stewart’s shoulder.” Bleeding and in pain, Stewart shouted, “Don’t shoot, Sanders! You’ve killed me!” The Colonel was a hothead but he was no murderer. The two men backed off and Stewart’s life was spared.
Ironically, Stewart was arrested in the hospital, tried and sentenced to 18 years in prison. Sanders and Shelburne were found not guilty. Sanders felt true remorse for his part in the incident and later went to Stewart’s daughter Ona May, apologized, and offered his help if she ever needed it. Local legend claims that the Colonel took care of Ona May for the rest of her life.
Sanders went back to his Shell station where he continued to serve steak, ham, biscuits, and his special recipe fried chicken to hungry customers. It was not fancy, served family style with bowls of food from which the diners served themselves, but by all accounts, it was “finger lickin’ good.” As the business grew into a motel/cafe, Sanders began wearing a black suit, growing a goatee that he would dye white and calling himself “Colonel.” Soon, he was running a full-fledged restaurant across the street, and his food was so popular that Governor Ruby Laffoon gave Sanders the honorary title of Kentucky Colonel. And the rest is history.
By the time of his death in 1980, there were an estimated 6,000 KFC outlets in 48 countries worldwide, with $2 billion of sales annually. As for Matt Stewart, well, after two years behind bars, he was shot to death by a deputy sheriff. No one knows for sure, but rumors has it the deputy was a paid gunman, hired to assassinate Stewart by Robert Gibson’s family. The deputy sheriff was never charged.
For many of this generation, Colonel Sanders is little more than a cartoon of an old guy on a KFC bucket. The real Colonel cussed like a sailor, was an unashamed flirt and an astute businessman with a proven record of eliminating the competition; one way or another. He was nothing like the aw-shucks version that history has handed down to us. He ate fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy and biscuits every single day, which added an extra 50 pounds on his 5-foot, 11-inch frame. In short, the Hoosier born Kentucky Colonel lived a life every bit as worthy as his secret recipe.