Harland Sanders around 1914. Public Domain via Wikipedia.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, America’s first Labor Day was held in New York City on September 5, 1882 – a Tuesday. It wouldn’t actually be until 1894 that Congress passed legislation making the first Monday in September the official national Labor Day holiday.

Nevertheless, since Labor Day is a day to acknowledge the accomplishments of workers, today we’ve decided to spend our Motel Monday Labor Day celebrating one of the hardest working entrepreneurs in the history of American business – Harland David Sanders.

Of course, everybody knows Harland Sanders as the ubiquitous face that smiles down over us from KFC restaurants all over the world. However, not many know that the Colonel did much more than make fried chicken famous.

Scratching Out a Living

Harland David Sanders was born on September 9, 1890, on a farm outside Henryville, Indiana, not Kentucky as you might expect. When Harland was just five years old, his father died, so his mother had to take a job canning tomatoes in a nearby factory.  As a result, the young Sanders was responsible for taking care of his two siblings.

At the age of thirteen, he started working as a farmhand. At 14, he found work painting horse carriages. By 16, Harland had worked as a train conductor and even joined the Army where he was stationed in Cuba and subsequently awarded the Cuban Pacification Medal.

 

Fun Fact! Sanders was honorably discharged as an enlisted man, not an officer. Sanders would be issued the honorary title of “Kentucky” Colonel – the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky – by Kentucky Governor Ruby Laffoon in 1935. He would be awarded the title again in 1949, at which time Harland would take on the persona of Colonel Sanders complete with moustache, goatee and string tie.

 

After leaving the military, Sanders would hold a variety of jobs including insurance salesman, railroad worker, business owner, politician, and tire salesman – all with mixed success.

In 1924, Harland began managing a service station in Nicholasville, Kentucky, after a chance meeting with the general manager of Standard Oil of Kentucky. However, it would close its doors just 6 years later in 1930 – a victim of the Great Depression.

Eat Here. Get Gas.

Shortly after shuttering the Standard Oil service station, Sanders was approached by the Shell Oil Company. They offered him a job running a service station in Corbin, Kentucky, in exchange for free rent and a percentage of the profits. Sanders agreed.

Sanders soon began serving chicken, ham and steak dinners to travelers initially in his living quarters behind the station, but later built a restaurant on the property. The restaurant proved successful even garnering an entry in Duncan Hines’ popular U.S. restaurant guide Adventures in Good Eating:

Corbin, KY.   Sanders Court and Café
41 — Jct. with 25, 25 E. ½ Mi. N. of Corbin. Open all year except Xmas.
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. L. 50¢ to $1; D., 60¢ to $1

The Colonel’s Hospitality

Postcard Sanders Court, Asheville, North Carolina, C. 1940. Public Domain.

Sanders’ restaurant began doing so well, in fact, that he bought a restaurant-motel in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1939. And when his Corbin restaurant and service station burnt down that same year, the Colonel – as he now began referring to himself – constructed the present-day, 140-seat Sanders Café and an adjacent motel. Appropriately enough, he named both the Asheville and Corbin motels the Sanders Court, and even constructed a model of one of the motel rooms inside the Corbin café to tempt customers into staying the night.

Both motels featured the latest amenities for the time: baths with plenty of hot water, carpeted floors, “Perfect Sleeper” beds, air-conditioning, steam heating, and a radio in every room. And of course, since the Colonel had now perfected his “11 herbs and spices” recipe, both places offered fried chicken and other delicious food.

By 1942, World War II and gasoline rationing would come to America, leaving Colonel Sanders no choice but to close the Asheville cafe and motor court in 1942.  From 1948 until 1975, the court was owned and operated by Lee and Helen Roberts, though they mostly ran it as a motel after a large fire destroyed the restaurant in the mid-1950s. Today, the Asheville Sanders Court is still there. However now it’s an apartment complex known as Sander Court after the “s” was mistakenly painted over.

The Kentucky Colonel Hits the Road

Postcard Harland Sanders Restaurant and Sanders Motel, C. 1950s. Public Domain

During World War II, after putting his mistress Claudia Ledington-Price in charge of the Corbin café and motel, the Colonel would once again find himself working a variety of different jobs around the country. These included everything from working as a supervisor out in Seattle, Washington, to managing cafeterias for the U.S. government in nearby Tennessee.

He would find himself back in Corbin again after the war, but things were changing fast. After Interstate 75 was built around Corbin, customers started waning at the motel-restaurant combination. As a result, the Colonel sold the Sanders Café and Sanders Court in 1952 and focused all of his attention on franchising his secret-recipe chicken.

He traveled around the country, sleeping in the back of his car at night, and cooking samples of his chicken at any restaurant who would listen to him during the day. One day, luck would be on his side, however, when he sold his first franchise to Pete Harman who operated one of the largest restaurants in Salt Lake City, Utah. The rest, as they say, is history.

In 1962, the Colonel patented his method of pressure frying chicken. In 1963, he trademarked the famous “It’s Finger Lickin’ Good” slogan. By 1964, there were over 600 Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises nationwide. However, at 74, it all seemed to be a bit overwhelming, even for the Kentucky Colonel. That year, he would sell his franchise to a group of Kentucky businessmen led by venture capitalist and entrepreneur Jack C. Massey and 29-year-old lawyer (and future Governor of Kentucky) John Y. Brown.

Colonel Sanders Delivers

Postcard Colonel Sanders Inn, Louisville, Kentucky, c. 1969. Public Domain.

After he sold the company, Colonel Sanders remained the face of Kentucky Fried Chicken often traveling 200,000 miles a year to promote the brand. And why wouldn’t he? After all, from food packaging, napkins, condiments, the rotating bucket out on the roadside signage to media ads and even television commercials, his smiling face was everywhere.

John Y. Brown took notice of this and in 1969, thought to expand on Colonel Sanders’ fame by incorporating his image into a Kentucky Roast Beef franchise and even back into the motel business with Colonel Sander’s Inns. Both failed miserably within a year.

Colonel Harland David Sanders would pass away in 1980 at the age of 90. However, his likeness and legacy live on today as he still smiles down on us from KFC franchises all over the world. For many business owners, he is a great example of how hard work and determination can lead to success, no matter your age. And when you see the Colonel today, you don’t think about his failed motel ventures or Kentucky beef franchises; rather, you think of that delicious fried chicken with a secret blend of 11 herbs and spices that he worked so hard to deliver to you in the first place.

Of course, today you can also visit the place where it all began – Corbin, Kentucky’s own Harland Sanders Café and Museum. There you’ll see a replica of the kitchen where the Colonel first blended together his 11 secret herbs and spices just right and created the recipe for his world-famous Kentucky Fried Chicken. You can also eat that very same chicken at a real KFC housed in the original, wood-paneled 1940s dining room where the Colonel first served his secret recipe to diners nearly 80 years ago. For more information, visit their website here.

No matter if it’s back from a family barbecue three states away or back from a long weekend road trip to visit the Big Chicken in Marietta, Georgia, wherever you’re headed home from today, be sure to take Stuckey’s along with you. Whether it’s our world-famous Stuckey’s Pecan Log Roll and Pecan Pralines or Hunkey Dorey and salt water taffy, Stuckey’s has all the road trip snacks for all of your driving adventures.

And with this being the official last weekend of summer, why not send the kids back to school with some cool Stuckey’s branded apparel?

Visit our website for all these treats and more only at stuckeys.com

Stuckey’s – We’re Making Road Trips Fun Again!