Harland David Sanders
Harland David Sanders

September 9, 1890December 16, 1980 (90 years old)
Hometown: Henryville, IN
September 9, 1890December 16, 1980
(90 years old) | Henryville, IN

Life Story

Colonel Harland David Sanders was an American businessman and restaurateur who founded the Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) restaurant chain.

Sanders passed through several professions in his lifetime, with mixed success. He first served his fried chicken in 1930 in the midst of the Great Depression at a gas station he owned in North Corbin, a small city on the edge of the Appalachian Mountains in south eastern Kentucky. With a flair for promotion and dedication to providing quality fast food, Sanders oversaw his franchise in becoming one of the largest in the world. His likeness appears on their boxes to this day, and a stylized graphic of his face is a trademark of the corporation.

Sanders was born on 9 September 1890 in a thin-walled, four room shack on a country road three miles east of Henryville, Indiana. He was the oldest of three children born to Wilbur David and Margaret Ann Sanders. Sanders was of Irish descent.

Sanders' father was a mild and affectionate man who tried to make a living as a farmer, but fell and broke his back and a leg and had to give it up. For two years he worked as a butcher in Henryville. One afternoon in the summer of 1895 he came home with a fever and died later that day. Sanders' mother took work in a tomato-canning factory, and the young Harland was required to cook for his family.

Sanders dropped out of school when he was 12. When his mother remarried in 1902 his stepfather beat him. So then, with his mother's approval, he left home to live with his uncle in Albany.

Sanders falsified his date of birth and enlisted in the United States Army at the age of fifteen, completing his service commitment as a mule handler in Cuba. He was honorably discharged after four months and made his way to Sheffield, Alabama where an uncle lived. It so happened that his brother Clarence had also made his way there, in order to avoid his stepfather. During his early years, Sanders held many jobs, including: steamboat pilot, insurance salesman, railroad fireman and farmer.

Sanders married Josephine King in 1908 and started a family, but after his boss fired him for insubordination while he was on a trip, Josephine stopped writing him letters. He then learned that Josephine had left him, given away all their furniture and household goods, and taken the children back to her parents’ home. Josephine’s brother wrote Sanders a letter saying, "She had no business marrying a no-good fellow like you who can’t hold a job." He had a son, Harland, Jr., who died at an early age, and two daughters, Margaret Sanders and Mildred Sanders Ruggles.

In 1930 Sanders opened a service station in Corbin, Kentucky where he cooked chicken dishes and other meals such as country ham and steaks for customers. Since he did not have a restaurant, he served customers in his adjacent living quarters. His local popularity grew, and Sanders moved to a motel and 142 seat restaurant, later Harland Sanders Café and Museum. Over the next nine years he developed his "secret recipe" for frying chicken in a pressure fryer that cooked the chicken much faster than pan frying. In 1939 food critic Duncan Hines visited Sanders’s restaurant incognito and was so impressed he listed the place in “Adventures in Good Eating,” his famous guide to restaurants throughout the US. As his success grew, Sanders played a more active role in civic life, joining the Rotary Club, the chamber of commerce, and the Freemasons. In 1947 he and Josephine divorced, and in 1949 he married his secretary Claudia, as he had long desired. He was "re-commissioned" as a Kentucky colonel in 1949 by his friend, Governor Lawrence Wetherby.

Around 1950, Sanders began developing his distinctive appearance, growing his trademark mustache and goatee and donning a white suit and string tie. He never wore anything else in public during the last 20 years of his life, using a heavy wool suit in the winter and a light cotton suit in the summer. He bleached his moustache and goatee to match his white hair.

At age 65, Sanders' store having failed due to the new Interstate 75 reducing his restaurant's customer traffic, he took $105 from his first Social Security check and began visiting potential franchisees.

The franchise approach was successful, and less than ten years later (in 1964) Sanders sold the Kentucky Fried Chicken Corporation for $2 million to a partnership of Kentucky businessmen headed by John Y. Brown, Jr. The deal did not include the Canadian operations. In 1965 Sanders moved to Mississauga, Ontario to oversee his Canadian franchises and continued to collect franchise and appearance fees there and appearance fees in the U.S. (He was locally active. For example, his 80th birthday was held at the Inn on the Park in North York, Ontario, hosted by Jerry Lewis as a Canadian Muscular Dystrophy Association fundraiser.) In September 1970 he and his wife were baptized in the Jordan River. He befriended Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell.

In 1973, he sued Heublein Inc. — then parent company of Kentucky Fried Chicken — over alleged misuse of his image in promoting products he had not helped develop. In 1975, Heublein Inc. unsuccessfully sued Sanders for libel after he publicly described their gravy as "wallpaper paste" to which "sludge" was added.

Sanders later used his stockholdings to create the Colonel Harland Sanders Trust and Colonel Harland Sanders Charitable Organization, which used the proceeds to aid charities and fund scholarships. His trusts continue to donate money to groups like the Trillium Health Care Centre; a wing of their building specializes in women's and children's care and has been named after him. The Sidney, British Columbia based foundation granted over $1,000,000 in 2007, according to its 2007 tax return.

Sanders died at the Jewish Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, of pneumonia on December 16, 1980. He had been diagnosed with acute leukemia the previous June. His body lay in state in the rotunda of the Kentucky State Capitol; after a funeral service at the Southern Baptist Seminary Chapel attended by more than 1,000 people. He was buried in his characteristic white suit and black western string tie in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville.