The World Famous Colonel: How Harland Sanders Got His Start

He is known as the Southern gentleman in the white suit, white goatee and black string tie, and he is perhaps one of the most famous colonels in the world. Despite not founding the business until he was 66 years old, Harland Sanders turned his local chicken stand into a multinational fast-food franchise. Today, KFC has more than 14,000 franchise outlets in over 100 countries, and pulls in over $520 million in annual revenue. That success, however, was the result of a long and uphill journey for Sanders.

Harland David Sanders was born on September 9, 1890 on a farm in Henryville, Indiana. He was the eldest of three children to a butcher father, Wilbert Sanders, and a homemaker mother, Margaret Ann Dunleavy. Sanders’ life was turned upside down when he was just five years old. His father died, leaving his mother to look after the three kids. Sanders was left in charge of his siblings while his mother worked extra jobs peeling tomatoes at a canning factory and sewing. This first experience of learning how to cook for his siblings would be an important one for the young Sanders.

When Sanders was ten years old, he got his first job working part-time on a local farm. He soon quit school so he could work full-time and help support his family. At 12 years old, Sanders’ mother remarried to a produce farmer whom Sanders would not enjoy an easy relationship with. While the rest of the family moved to Indianapolis, Sanders stayed where he was, working on a farm for $15 a month, plus room and board.

After three years of working on the farm, Sanders found a job as a streetcar conductor in New Albany. He soon quit that position to enlist in the U.S. Army, where he would spend a year as a soldier stationed in Cuba. When he was discharged, he got married and moved to Jasper, Alabama, in what would be the beginning of a long and varied career.

Sanders started off by selling insurance, but soon opened up his own steamboat ferry company on the Ohio River. A few years later, he began to work as a secretary for the Columbus Chamber of Commerce. Here, Sanders met an inventor who had found a way to run natural gas lamps on gas from carbide. Sanders bought the rights to the patent and attempted to start a manufacturing company, but it quickly failed.

Sanders then went to work for the Illinois Central Railroad, during which time he also earned a law degree by correspondence from Southern University. When he lost his job with the railroad, he saw it as his perfect opportunity to begin practicing law. Despite modest success, Sanders’ legal career came to a quick halt when he got into a fight with a client in the courtroom.

By then it was 1930. The depression was beginning to hit people hard and employment was difficult to come by. Never one to have an easy time working for someone else anyway, Sanders finally decided to go into business for himself. At 40 years old, this was going to be the start of something new.

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