This Day in History — December 16

December 16, 1980, Colonel Harland Sanders, one of the most recognizable faces in the fast food industry, passed away at the age of 90. Originally from Indiana, the Colonel moved to Corbin, KY in 1930, where he opened a service station which was located where the first Kentucky Fried Chicken was opened. Out of the back, Sanders had a lunch counter which could only seat six. It became so popular that expansion was necessary.

The Colonel opened Sanders Cafe, which could seat 142, by 1937. It was there that the flavor combination that we enjoy in Kentucky Fried Chicken was born. The chicken was so immensely popular and his business expanded even more. Though secret about the exact recipe, Sanders was quoted in saying that the spice blend consisted of spices everyone had on the shelf. He also was innovative in the frying process by using a pressure cooking. His chicken was truly unique.

Business was going very well until a fire destroyed the cafe in 1939. He rebuilt the business as a restaurant and motel, but when construction of Interstate 75 led to the bypass of Corbin, business steadily declined. At the age of 66, Colonel Sanders began to franchise his chicken. The first franchisee was Pete Harman out of Salt Lake City and by 1959, more than two hundred Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in the United States and Canada sold food under the Colonel Sanders trademark. Kentucky Fried Chicken became a force to be reckoned with the in the fast food industry. His daughter Margaret suggested that the chicken be available for take-out, which revolutionized the way consumers accessed the product.

Why is Harland Sanders a “colonel” anyway? In 1934, Governor Ruby Laffoon granted Sanders the honorary title of “Kentucky Colonel.” In 1950, he was recommissioned by Governor Lawrence Wetherby. After this recommission, he began to look the part, by growing a mustache and a goatee and by wearing a white suit and string tie.

In 1960, Sanders moved the headquarters of Kentucky Fried Chicken to Shelbyville, near Louisville. On February 18, 1964, Sanders sold his franchise business to former Kentucky Governor John Y. Brown Jr. and Jack Massey for $2 million. Sanders was retained on salary as spokesman for Kentucky Fried Chicken and his face was everywhere! Kentucky Fried Chicken is not just popular in the Bluegrass state or even the United States. It’s even popular globally, especially in Japan.

The Colonel was a very committed philanthropist, contributing money to religious charities, hospitals, medical research, education, the Boy Scouts, Junior Achievement, and the March of Dimes. Sanders died on Dec. 16, 1980, after which his body lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort. He was buried in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery.

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