The Amazing Life of Colonel Harland David Sanders, Founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken

Updated on September 8, 2017
Readmikenow profile image

Readmikenow enjoys writing about unique and interesting people. He likes to learn about individuals who live or have lived unusual lives.

Colonel Sanders outside Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant
Colonel Sanders outside Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant

During his life, Harland David Sanders held numerous jobs. He worked as everything from an insurance salesman to filling station operator as well as a steam engine stoker and more. During the Great Depression, Sanders started selling fried chicken at a roadside restaurant in Kentucky. He realized the concept of restaurant franchising had tremendous potential. In 1952, the first Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) franchise opened for business in Utah. It was an instant success. KFC franchise restaurants quickly opened all over the United States and around the world. Sanders sold the company in 1964 to a group of investors for $2 million. As of 2015, it was estimated there were a combined 20,000 KFC locations in the United States and around the world.

Early Life

Harland David Sanders was born in Henryville, Indiana on September 9, 1890. He was the oldest of three children. His father was a farmer until an accident and then became a butcher. His mother was a devout Christian and very strict with her children. Sander's father died when he was 5-years-old. His mother required him to cook for his younger siblings. According to his siblings, by the time Sanders turned seven, he could prepare a good meal of bread, vegetables, and meat. At the age of 10, Sanders began to work as a farmhand. In 1903, Sanders quit school and at the age of 13 left home. He got a job painting horse carriages and a year later worked as a farmhand in southern Indiana. In 1906, Sanders moved in with his uncle and got a job as a streetcar conductor. Later that year, he falsified documents to join the Army. After serving in Cuba, he was given an honorable discharge. In 1907, he moved to Alabama and lived with his brother. There he was able to get a job helping a blacksmith. He eventually got a job cleaning out the ash pans of railroad cars. At the age of 17, he was a fire stoker for a railroad.

Colonel Sanders with daughters
Colonel Sanders with daughters


Sanders was working at a railroad when he met Josephine King from Jasper, Alabama. They were married shortly after meeting. This couple had a son who passed away from infected tonsils. They also had two daughters named Mildred and Margaret. Sanders divorced Josephine in 1947. He then married Claudia Ledington-Price in 1949.

Professional Career

Sanders found work as a fireman with the Illinois Central Railroad and moved his family to Jackson, Tennessee. During this time, Sanders studied law by correspondence with La Salle Extension University. He began to practice law in Little Rock, Arkansas. After a few years, he was doing well. Sanders legal career came to a close when he engaged in a courtroom brawl with a person he was representing. Sanders then went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad. He tried a job selling life insurance for Prudential Life Insurance but was let go for insubordination.

Young Colonel Sanders
Young Colonel Sanders

Starting Companies

Sanders started a ferry boat company in 1920. The boat he operated was on the Ohio river and sailed between Louisville and Jeffersonville in Kentucky. The ferry company was very successful. Sanders took a job as secretary of the Chamber of Commerce in the town of Columbus in Indiana. He sold his shares of the ferry boat company and used them to start a company making acetylene lamps. The company did well until Delco started selling their electric lamps with credit.

First Restaurant

Shell Oil Company offered a service station to Sanders in 1930. It would be rent free; the company only wanted a certain percentage of the sales from the service station. This was when Sanders started serving chicken dishes. He also provided a number of other meals such as steaks, hams and more. In 1935, Sanders was commissioned as a Kentucky Colonel by Kentucky governor Ruby Laffoon. The popularity of Sander’s food increased. His restaurant and service station impressed representatives of Duncan Hines. They included Sander's business in a guide to good restaurants. The guide was called “Adventure in Good Eating.”

Secret Recipe

Sanders purchased a motel located in Asheville, North Carolina in 1939. He turned it into a restaurant and motel. It was destroyed by a fire the same year. Sanders rebuilt the structure into a motel with a restaurant able to seat over 139 people. Sanders developed his “Secret Recipe” in 1940. It involved frying chicken in a pressure fryer. When World War II started, gas was rationed. His business from tourists stopped. Sanders had to close his restaurant and motel. Sanders then ran cafeterias for the government and also worked as a cafeteria manager in Tennessee.

Colonel Sanders at place where Kentucky Fried Chicken started
Colonel Sanders at place where Kentucky Fried Chicken started

Kentucky Fried Chicken

Sanders franchised his secret recipe in 1952. He offered it to Pat Harmon of South Salt Lake, Utah. Harman operated one of the largest restaurants in Salt Lake City. During the first twelve months of selling chicken using Sanders secret recipe, the restaurant’s sales of fried chicken increased over 74 percent. The chicken was a way Harman differentiated his restaurant from others in the area. A sign painter hired by Harman named Don Anderson was the first person to use the term “Kentucky Fried Chicken.”

Colonel Sanders making chicken
Colonel Sanders making chicken

Franchise Opportunity

After selling a restaurant he owned, Sanders was 65 and only had a small amount of savings and $105 a month from Social Security for income. He decided to expand the franchising his fried chicken concept. He drove around the United States looking for restaurants he believed would benefit from it. Sanders was on the road for long hours and often slept in the back of his car. He visited restaurants and offered to show them his fried chicken by making some for them. If the people at the restaurant like it, Sanders would negotiate franchise rights to use his method of making fried chicken.


Sanders franchise approach took time but became popular. One of the initial fast food chains to expand into other countries was Kentucky Fried Chicken. During the 1960s, restaurants opened in England, Canada, Jamaica as well as Mexico. In 1962, Sanders was able to obtain a patent for his method of cooking chicken. The phrase “It's Finger Lickin' Good,” was trademarked by Sanders in 1963.

Brand Ambassador

The expansion of Sander's company to hundreds of locations around the world overwhelmed him. He sold his Kentucky Fried Chicken Corporation in 1964 when he was 73. Sanders then became a salaried brand ambassador for the company. He became the symbol of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Sanders traveled hundreds of thousands of miles each year on behalf of the company. He made many appearances and filmed several television commercials. He also had a reputation for swearing at franchise owners who didn't provide what he considered the Colonel's chicken. Sanders would make surprise visits to KFC restaurants, and if the food didn't meet his standards, he would swear and throw it on the floor.

Grave marker for Colonel Harland David Sanders
Grave marker for Colonel Harland David Sanders


In June of 1980, Sanders was diagnosed with acute Leukemia. On December 16, 1980, Colonel Harland David Sanders passed away at the age of 90. He remained active making appearances in his white suit until a month prior to his death. Sanders was buried in Cave Hill Cemetery in Kentucky. When he was buried, Sanders was wearing his characteristic white suit with black western string tie.

Questions & Answers


      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      • Readmikenow profile image

        Readmikenow 2 months ago

        Linda, thanks. He is a true inspiration to all of us.

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 2 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        I enjoyed learning about Colonel Sanders' life. I first heard about him after he had become successful, so it was interesting to learn about his earlier life. It's certainly inspiring to hear that he began the road to success at the age of sixty-five!

      • Readmikenow profile image

        Readmikenow 6 months ago

        Catherine, thanks. Colonel Sanders is an inspiration for never giving up no matter what.

      • CatherineGiordano profile image

        Catherine Giordano 6 months ago from Orlando Florida

        What I have always loved about the story of "Colonel" Sanders is that he began his franchise business at age 65. I use his story as an example of how it is never too late to match your talents to your passion and achieve success. However, I did not know much about the man's life story. Thank you for filling me in.

      • Readmikenow profile image

        Readmikenow 6 months ago

        Mary, thanks. I agree. He was a unique individuals.

      • Blond Logic profile image

        Mary Wickison 7 months ago from Brazil

        He had the determination to keep going.

        Tony Robbins relates Col. Sanders story in his talks. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to get people to accept a recipe for fried chicken and pay you to use it?

        He is the stuff of legends.

      • Larry Rankin profile image

        Larry Rankin 7 months ago from Oklahoma

        The Colonel was an interesting dude. Great read!

      • Readmikenow profile image

        Readmikenow 7 months ago

        S Maree, thank you for sharing such a great story.

      • profile image

        S Maree 7 months ago

        My grandmother used to enjoy traveling in the late 1960's and on one flight she happened to be seated next to Col. Sanders. She regaled us with the experience, extolling his gentlemanly mien.

        She also alarmed us by gushing that she told him "all about my girls". She had four daughters and four granddaughters at the time and we could only hope he wasn't bored silly. She really liked to talk about us!

        At least he didn't ask for a new seat! We were always grateful that he allowed Grandma to bend his ear. She didn't seem to ask HIM much, as when I asked her what he had to say, she simply said "Oh, he was SUCH a gentleman"! Good thing she wasn't a KFC manager!

        Thank you for answering the question for me!