The Armed Shootout That Gave America Kentucky Fried Chicken

Colonel Sanders, Photo Courtsy: Dan Lindsay

Just about every American can recognize the iconic and gentle looking old man who has served as the face of Kentucky Fried Chicken for over half-a-century; however, most people would be shocked to learn that “The Colonel’s” real biography includes gun slinging, womanizing and constant legal battles with the brand he created.

Born in Southern Indiana in 1890, Harland David Sanders spent the first half of his life attempting to reign in his uncontrollable temper.

At the age of five, Sanders’ father died unexpectedly of a fever. To keep the family afloat, his mother took a job working in a tomato cannery, and the young Harland was required to look after and cook for his siblings. Around the age of seven, the man who would eventually become known around the globe as “Colonel Sanders” had become a skilled cook.

When Harland was 12, his mother remarried to William Broaddus. Having a very tumultuous relationship with his stepfather, Sanders dropped out of seventh grade and went to live and work on a nearby farm.

Over the next decade, he would hold a countless number of jobs, including service in the United States military.

Unfortunately for Sanders, the pint-up anger he had developed throughout the course of his life would prove to be a constant thorn – The Indiana native lost a job with the Illinois Central Railroad after he brawled with a colleague.

Studying law at night, Sanders eventually was admitted to the bar and began a practice in Little Rock, unfortunately, his legal career ended after a courtroom fight with his own client.

Following this incident, Sanders got a job selling life insurance for the Prudential Life Insurance Company, but he was eventually fired for insubordination.

After seeing limited business success with a ferry boat endeavor, Sanders met the general manager of Standard Oil of Kentucky in 1924 and was asked to run a service station in Nicholasville. This station eventually closed due to the hardships of the Great Depression, however, in 1930, the Shell Oil Company offered Sanders a service station in North Corbin, Kentucky, rent free, in return for paying them a percentage of sales.

Sanders began to serve chicken dishes and other meals such as country ham and steaks from his home before opening a restaurant inside the station.

Always a magnet for confrontation, Sanders again found himself at the epicenter of a trouble when an adjacent store owner supposedly painted over his sign.

“What Sanders lacked in business skills, he more than made up for in passion. When Sanders painted a large sign pointing potential customers from the highway toward his gas station in Corbin, Ky. (it would eventually expand into Sander’s first cafe), he enraged the owner of a competing gas station, Matt Stewart. Stewart painted over Sanders’ sign, leading to Sanders threatening to ‘blow [his] G-D head off’ and repainting the sign himself.

“When Sanders discovered Stewart once again painting over the sign, he and two Shell officials ran to catch him red handed, heavily armed. In the resulting gun fight, the Shell manager was killed and Sanders shot Stewart in the shoulder… [the fight] gave Sanders complete control over the gas station market in the area after his competition was sent to jail for murder,” wrote Kate Taylor.

With the only competition in town now locked away, Sanders would find himself free to expand his brand throughout the Appalachian region and eventually throughout the world.

In 1935 Sanders was commissioned as a Kentucky Colonel by Kentucky Governor Ruby Laffoon. His local popularity grew, and, in 1939, food critic Duncan Hines visited Sanders’s restaurant and included it in Adventures in Good Eating, his guide to restaurants throughout the US.

In 1964, then 73 years old, he sold the Kentucky Fried Chicken corporation for $2 million ($15.3 million today) to a partnership of Kentucky businessmen headed by John Y. Brown, Jr. (a then-29-year-old lawyer and future governor of Kentucky) and Jack C. Massey (a venture capitalist and entrepreneur), and he became a salaried brand ambassador.

Not the type to quietly disappear, Sanders remained a vocal critic of changes made to the brand he created. The Colonel was particularly displeased with the new recipe of KFC’s gravy.

As late as 1979 Sanders made surprise visits to KFC restaurants, and if the food disappointed him, he denounced it to the franchisee as “G-D slop” or pushed it onto the floor.

In the late 1970s, The Colonel told the Louisville Courier-Journal, “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. And I know wallpaper paste, by God, because I’ve seen my mother make it. … There’s no nutrition in it and they ought not to be allowed to sell it. … crispy recipe is nothing in the world but a damn fried doughball stuck on some chicken.”

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