You might know of Colonel Harland Sanders as the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, or KFC. But the story of the man is much more interesting than the story of the chicken franchise. Sanders bounced from job to job in the early part of the 20th century before (sort of) settling down in Corbin, Kentucky, to sell gasoline along 25W, the main route from Ontario to Florida. He constantly tried new ideas to make money, and many of them failed. Along the way, he figured in plenty of colorful stories.
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.
In a biography at Damn Interesting, we also find out how Sanders survived a bridge collapse, instigated a shootout over advertising, and gained as reputation as a midwife. The story of the franchise is there, too, in which we find out why FKC isn’t as good as it was in the 1960s.