Colonel Sanders. Generally seen as the poultry equivalent of Ronald McDonald or Wendy, the friendly Colonel was not only a real person but has led the most fascinating of lives. From invading Cuba with a US president to serving fried chicken to the scientists working on the Manhattan Project this man embodies all of the wacky success of the American dream. And yes, he was a Colonel.
Harland David Sanders was born in 1890, a year in which the last Native American tribe were defeated in battle, the first powered flight occurred in France (Albeit at a height of 20cm) and a little known Dutch artist named Vincent van Gogh who had sold less than twenty paintings died penniless. Following the sudden death of his father, Harland worked from the age of ten as a farm hand in Indiana. He left home at fourteen and two years later lied about his age to join the army.
Serving under President Theodore Roosevelt, called ‘The Colonel’ by admirers and ‘Teddy’ by others, Sanders took part in the successful invasion of Cuba in 1906. He was honourably discharged the following year. Over the following two decades he worked in a range of jobs from a railroad employee to a blacksmith. Most notably however he qualified as a lawyer after studying in his spare time as a fireman. He served in Little Rock Tennessee, which later gained international notoriety from the ‘Little Rock Nine’ during the Civil Rights movement. No stranger to drama, he was stripped of his role when he started a courtroom brawl during a particularly heated case with the very person he was defending.
Finally in 1930 he began working as a chef while running a Shell service station in Kentucky, he served his customers sizzling steaks and fried chicken from his family’s kitchen table in the back room. The small restaurant quickly became one of the state’s worst kept secrets. In 1935 the governor of Kentucky Ruby Laffoon even made Harland a Colonel of the state guard due to his delicious dishes. Riding a wave of popularity, the Colonel opened his first chicken restaurant after finalising his secret recipe only months before. However his luck quickly ran out and the establishment burnt down mere weeks after opening in 1940.
Following the US entry to World War Two in December 1941, Sanders was commissioned as a cook for government works in Tennessee as part of the vast Manhattan Project who were working on their own secret recipe to create the world’s first nuclear bomb.
It was not until 1952 however that the 62 year old Colonel Sanders opened his first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. It’s popularity soared and quickly became a franchise. Within 12 years of opening the first ‘KFC’ there were 600 stores in four countries. More than aware of the importance of image, he now only wore a white suit with a black string tie and died his goatee to match his silver hair.
After selling the rights to his brain-child in 1965, the Colonel quickly fell out of love with the fast-food chain. Wholeheartedly dedicated to high quality food and southern hospitality, he was disgusted with what his restaurant had become. He described the new KFC gravy as ‘wallpaper paste with sludge added’.
He died at the age of 90 with an international, almost superhuman legacy. Actors still replicate his voice in KFC adverts in a range of different languages and a Japanese baseball team have rued the ‘Colonel’s Curse’ since their fans drunkenly threw a statue of him into a river never to be seen again.
He certainly does encapsulate the American dream; born into obscurity, achieving fame and riches then dying wondering how it went wrong once corporations had taken over his small-town idea and turned it into big business.