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Published: Sunday, 1/18/2004

Tribute to the colonel is town's recipe for success

Most people who drive south on I-75 this winter will agree that a break in the monotony and stress is necessary. The only ones who may disagree are those drivers who think they own the highway and drive accordingly.

If I could have recovered from the shock somewhere in Kentucky, I would have jotted down the license number of the car hauler that suddenly, without notice, swerved from the right lane into the center lane, where I was keeping a legal 70-mph speed. Thankfully, I had a keen eye on the road and avoided an accident.

It was shortly after that experience that the Corbin, Ky., exit sign had more appeal than it had on previous trips to Florida.

I took the exit to let the lumps in my throat and stomach settle while checking out the history of Corbin's most famous citizen and having a lunch of fried chicken livers.

Corbin is the home of Harland Sanders, founder of the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain. The Colonel Harland Sanders Cafe and Museum is a combination cafe and historical display. The man we remember for his white suit, hair, and goatee and his black string tie was born in 1890 in Henryville, Ind. He left school to support his family. Colonel Sanders did not get the title from military service, but was awarded it by a Kentucky governor. (It was such a common gesture years ago, I even have a commendation as an honorary Kentucky colonel, signed by the late Governor Albert "Happy" Chandler.)

Visitors were having their picture taken sitting beside the life-sized bronze statue of the colonel. A curbside marker tells the story of an ambitious entrepreneur who settled in Corbin after living in several other states working at jobs that included being a farm hand, railroader, soldier, and a ferry boat captain.

His entry into the gas-station business was the key to his eventual success in the food business. In 1930, he bought a gas station on U.S. 25, known then as the Dixie Highway, or the main route to Florida before I-75 was built.

During the Depression the colonel and his wife prepared and sold meals to tourists. The business was so successful, they added a cafe and cabins. In 1937, their venture was said to be the first gas, food, and lodging complex in Kentucky.

Sanders was always interested in experimenting with food. Developing the fried-chicken recipe is said to have taken 25 years. The recipe finally met his satisfaction in 1952, and it became a hallmark of the menu when the Sanderses bought a cafe across the road from the gas station (the current location of the cafe and museum).

The colonel not only was far-sighted when he launched a franchise empire, but in his dress that identified him. Years ago, I spotted the white-haired man in his white suit at a distance at a National Restaurant Show in Chicago. I hastened to meet him. Had he been wearing black pants and a sport shirt, I probably wouldn't have noticed him.

When the new highway bypassed his thriving business on U.S. 25 in 1956, Sanders was not willing to sit in a proverbial Kentucky rocking chair. He took to the road to sell franchises for the pressure-fried chicken. The first unit in what has multiplied to thousands of KFC outlets was in Salt Lake City. The colonel was 66 years old - not bad for a boy who quit school to help support his brothers and sisters back home in Indiana.



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