American Icon: Colonel Sanders

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Ever wondered the story behind the famous Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant and its popular symbol?

Like most great things, the making of this restaurant took a lot of time, effort and patience. The result of the hard work throughout the years is evident today in the chain of restaurants around the world that bear the name Kentucky Fried Chicken. The mastermind behind this great restaurant is a young farmhand turned entrepreneur who had a tumultuous childhood and whose tremendous responsibilities at an early age propelled him to work harder to meet the needs of his family.

Colonel Harland Sanders is recognized for his role in setting up the first Kentucky Fried Chicken in South Salt Lake, Utah. Even after selling the company to businessman John Brown, he remained an active part the business until his death at the age of 90. He appeared in several public platforms, and television commercials and was officially given the name Colonel by the then governor of Kentucky by Governor Ruby Laffoon in 1935 after his significant success in the restaurant business.


Harland David Sanders was born on September 9, 1890, in a four-room house located 3 miles east of Henryville, Indiana. He was the oldest of three children born to Wilbur David and Margaret Ann Sanders. The family attended the Advent Christian Church and were of mostly Irish and English ancestry. His father was a mild and affectionate man who worked his 80-acre farm, until he broke his leg in an accident. He then worked as a butcher in Henryville for two years. Sanders' mother was a devout Christian and strict parent, who continuously warned her children of "the evils of alcohol, gambling, tobacco, and whistling on Sundays."

Sanders had a beautiful childhood up until his father came down with a fever and passed away hours into his illness. His mother took up a job in a tomato cannery and the young Harland was forced to look after and cook for his siblings. By the age of seven, he was skilled with vegetables and bread and needing improvement in meat. While his mother was away, the children would forage for food, sometimes for days. At the age of ten, Sanders began to work as a farmhand to help with the increasing family expenses.

In 1902, when Sanders was twelve years, his mother remarried William Broaddus and the family moved to Greenwood, Indiana. Sanders had a tumultuous relationship with his stepfather. In 1903, he dropped out of seventh grade, and went to live and work on a nearby farm. He blamed his decision to quit school on algebra. At age 13, he left home and took a job painting horse carriages in Indianapolis. Later at the age of 14, he moved to southern Indiana to work as a farmhand.


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 used this opportunity to serve chicken dishes and other meals such as steaks and country ham. Initially he served the customers in his adjacent living quarters before opening a restaurant. It was during this period that Sanders was involved in a shootout with Matt Stewart, a local competitor, over the repainting of a sign directing traffic to his station. Stewart killed a Shell official who was with Sanders and was convicted of murder, eliminating Sanders' competition.

In 1952, Sanders franchised his secret recipe "Kentucky Fried Chicken" for the first time, to the operator of one of the city’s largest restaurants, Pete Harman of South Salt Lake, Utah. In the first year of selling the product, restaurant sales more than tripled, with 75% of the increase coming from sales of fried chicken. For Harman, the addition of fried chicken was a way of differentiating his restaurant from competitors; in Utah, a product originating from Kentucky was unique and evoked imagery of Southern hospitality.

Don Anderson, a sign painter hired by Harman, coined the name Kentucky Fried Chicken. After Harman's success, several other restaurant owners franchised the concept and paid Sanders $0.04 per chicken. The restaurants used the iconic image of Sanders, dressed in a white suit with a mustache as a symbol of their competence in cooking.


Besides his entrepreneurial skills, Sanders used his success to give back to the American society. He created 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 charitable entities such as the Mississauga Hospital; the wing of the hospital building for women's and children's care is named The Colonel Harland Sanders Family Care Centre in his honor.

The story of Colonel Harland Sanders is both exciting and inspirational in equal measures. It tells a tale of possibilities and the belief in oneself. Sanders is one American hero who went against the odds to set up a restaurant chain that would exist in two centuries and achieve a worldwide success. His entrepreneurial skills reflect on the hardworking nature of Americans and their belief in possibilities. Today, we would like to appreciate Sanders’ efforts and call him out as an American Icon.

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