Harlan Sanders: The Kentucky Colonel Who Made Chicken Finger-Lickin’ Good

The story of the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken is one worth knowing.

Harlan Sanders (1890-1980) was a true late bloomer.

He was also a man who relentlessly refused to give up on his dreams. And later, even his own soul.

Sanders didn’t open his first restaurant until he was 40 years old, and then spent a dozen years before he launched his first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Salt Lake City (1952).

Sanders spent half his life in failure, poverty and dead ends.

The hard-charging kid from Henryville, IN struggled to keep jobs. He quit too soon. He got laid off.  And, occasionally, even fired. In one infamous tale, Sanders brawled with his own client in a courtroom. This heated moment ended his brief stint as a lawyer. One biographer noted the temperamental Sanders suffered from a lack of “self-control, impatience, and a self-righteous lack of diplomacy.” His focus was relentless. His energy was tireless. And he evolved into a raging, vulgar workaholic with a horrendous temper.

Sanders sold life insurance, worked the railroad and ferries, sold tires, ran a service (gas) station, and many other jobs to pay his bills. But it was his gas station that sparked a new idea. His travelers who stopped to refuel were also hungry to be fed themselves. Sanders developed a roadside grill that sold chicken, ham and steak dinners.

The famed food critic Duncan Hines once visited his Corbin, KY restaurant and penned in popular travel guide: “A very good place to stop en route to Cumberland Falls and the Great Smokies. Continuous 24-hour service. Sizzling steaks, fried chicken, country ham, hot biscuits.”  It was such publicity that created fresh opportunity and honor for Sanders. In 1939 he opened a motel next door. His governor named him a Kentucky “colonel.”

Sanders was 50 years old when he created his “secret” chicken recipe.

Then he spent the next two decades of his life building a brand and becoming the face of a new type of fast food restaurant. At 60 years of age, Sanders fully adopted the “Kentucky colonel” image. He changed his attire to all white, grew a goatee and, from that point forward, was known simply as “The Colonel.” For the next decade he lent that image to his company to create an iconic brand for chicken that was “fingerlickin’ good.” In 1964, he sold his business for $2 million dollars and put a price on his image going forward. The Colonel was rich and famous…but hardly happy. He was 73 years old and miserable.

So the elderly Sanders set about changing his life.

His reputation for a quick temper, vulgar (even racist) language and driving personality created both shame and guilt for the aging Colonel. Despite his millionaire status and famous mug, his business dealings brought no peace. He penned in his autobiography: “But all this while I knew I wasn’t right with God. It bothered me especially when I’d take the name of the Lord in vain. I did my cussin’ before women or anyplace. … I knew the terrible curse of cussin’ would probably keep me out of heaven when I died.”

The Colonel’s hard attitudes and forceful personality were initially softened by a new marriage to his long-time mistress Claudia in 1957. However he still spent the 1960s searching his soul to find true inner peace. His mother brought him up in a strict Adventist faith that only tortured him with guilt and shame. Sanders was looking for something different…something lasting.

In 1969, Sanders visited a revival service at The Evangel Tabernacle in Louisville, KY. On that night, his whole life changed (including his temper and profanity). The Colonel rekindled his religious faith, much like Johnny Cash, to embrace a simpler form of Christianity that finally exorcised his demons. On his 80th birthday, he and Claudia were baptized in the Jordan River. The couple faithfully attended church from that day forward. Among his friends were Billy Graham, Pat Boone and Jerry Falwell.

Sanders died ten years later at the age of 90.

His body laid in state at both the Kentucky capitol and the Kentucky Fried Chicken headquarters for thousands of people to pay their respects. Over 1,200 distinguished people and government dignitaries attended his funeral at Southern Seminary on December 20, 1980. By the time of Sanders’ death, there were an estimated 6,000 KFC outlets in 48 countries worldwide, with $2 billion in sales annually, but what his friends and family remembered most was his joy, love and peace.

Colonel Harlan Sanders.

A failed, arrogant, stubborn, vulgar workaholic who found the real “secret recipe” to life wasn’t in chicken but God.

And now you know the rest of HIStory.

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