Harland Sanders Café and Museum

When we were looking at the map with Mom and Dad, describing how we would travel to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Mom pointed at Corbin, Kentucky and exclaimed, “Harland Sanders Café and Museum!”  Mom and Dad had visited the museum on their way through Kentucky several years ago.  That piqued our interest, because we had never heard of the Harland Sanders Café and Museum.  You might know Harland Sanders better by another name:  Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame.

Harland David Sanders was born in Indiana in 1890.  Sanders’ father died in 1895 and his mother went to work in a cannery.  Sanders was left in charge of his two younger siblings and he learned to cook and clean at this very early age.  By the age of 10, Sanders was working as a farmhand.  When his mother remarried in 1902, Sanders did not get along with his stepfather.  He dropped out of school and went to live with an uncle who got him a job as a streetcar conductor.  When he was 16, Sanders falsified his age to enlist in the US Army.  He served as a wagoner until he was honorably discharged in 1907.  He then moved to Alabama to live with his uncle and his brother, who had also left home because of the stepfather.


Sanders started working for various railroad companies.  He usually lost a job because of insubordination or brawling.  He married Josephine King, an Alabama woman, in 1909 and they had three children.  Because of his jobs with the railroads, the family moved around a lot.  During this time, Sanders also started to study law.  He began a law practice in Little Rock, Arkansas but lost his license when he punched his own client in the courtroom.

After a short time as a life insurance salesman, Sanders started a ferryboat company.  The company was so successful that Sanders sold it and started a company that manufactured acetylene lamps which failed when electric lights were introduced.  Harland Sanders worked as a tire salesman and then as a service station manager.  When the service station closed due to the Great Depression, Sanders opened his own service station and restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky.  The restaurant was so successful that Sanders was named a Kentucky Colonel by Governor Ruby Laffoon.

In 1939 the restaurant burned down and Sanders rebuilt it as a motel and 140 seat restaurant.  He perfected the “secret recipe” for his pressure fried chicken in 1940.  When World War II broke out, Sanders left his mistress in charge of the restaurant and motel and managed the cafeteria for the government in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  After the war, Sanders returned to Corbin, divorced his wife, and married his mistress, Claudia Ledington-Price.

In 1952, Harland Sanders started franchising his “secret recipe.”  The first franchisee was Pete Harman of Salt Lake City, Utah.  A sign painter for Harman called it “Kentucky Fried Chicken” which was the first use of the KFC moniker.  Sanders sold his Corbin restaurant in 1955 in order to focus on franchising his “secret recipe.”  By 1962 there were more than 600 KFC franchises.  Harland Sanders patented his his method of pressure frying chicken and trademarked the phrase “It’s Finger Lickin’ Good” in 1963.

The rapid growth proved to be too much for the aging Sanders.  In 1964 he sold his company for $2 million and became the brand ambassador.  Sanders continued to visit the franchises and held them to rigorous standards.  When the company changed his gravy recipe in 1974, Sanders criticized it publicly as “wallpaper paste.”  During the last 20 years of his life, Sanders never appeared in public without wearing his white suit and black string tie.  Sanders died in 1980 at the age of 90 and is buried in Louisville, Kentucky.

The Harland Sanders Café and Museum was a very interesting stop.  The museum is free and is connected to and woven through the restaurant.  The museum paints Sanders in a very positive light, which his biographers paint a more nuanced picture.  Obviously he was a visionary and a force in the food industry.  A small “theater” in the restaurant played one Colonel Sanders commercial after another.  It took me back to my childhood and the days when we used to actually watch television commercials that were a minute long.

The Harland Sanders Café and Museum is located just off I-75 in Corbin, Kentucky.  It is an interesting place to stop and enjoy some delicious Kentucky Fried Chicken.  It seems like the thing to eat if you are living in Kentucky.