Everybody knows that Kentucky Fried Chicken is a fast-food chicken restaurant and that they have 11 secret herbs and spices. We also know that its logo is an image of its owner, Colonel Sanders. But who is Colonel Sanders? And is he even a Colonel?

Being Called a Colonel

The honorific Colonel used to be a title given to the head of the colony during colonial times. In the US, states like Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and others use this title as an honor. In the Commonwealth of Kentucky, for instance, Kentucky Colonel is the highest authority bestowed to someone. The title, later on, was given to its most noteworthy and outstanding citizens for their “outstanding service to community, state, and nation.”

In the military, a colonel is a senior military officer rank, although the same title was also used in the police forces.

Harland Sanders

Harland David Sanders was born in the east of Henryville in Indiana on September 9, 1890. His mother was a strict, devoted Christian who always reminded him and his two younger siblings of “the evils of alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and whistling on Sundays.” On the other hand, his father was the softer parent and worked his 80-acre farm. When his father died in 1895, his mother had to work in a tomato cannery. Harland was left to look after and cook for his siblings. At the tender age of seven, he was already an expert with bread and vegetables and then with meat later on. At 10, he already began working as a farmhand to help provide for the family, where he earned $2 a month.

Portrait of KFC founder Harland Sanders, popularly known as Colonel Sanders, as a young man.

His mother remarried twice, and in 1902, they moved to Greenwood, Indiana, when his mom married his second stepfather.

He dropped school at seventh grade, as he said algebra drove him off. At 13, he took a job as a painter for horse carriages in Indiana. At 14, he moved to the southern part of Indiana to work again as a farmhand. When he was 15, he lived with his uncle in New Albany and worked on a streetcar by taking fares and giving change.

When he turned 16, he got bored and decided to try something new. So, he falsified his documents to appear like he was of legal age to enter the Army, and he succeeded. He was deployed to Cuba but was immediately discharged after three months. By this time, Harland Sanders is still not a colonel.

Colonel Sanders’ business card, c. late 1940s.

He had more other jobs, from being a railroad worker to a country lawyer to the secretary to the Chamber of Commerce in Columbus, and then an operator of a gas station for quite a long time.

Chicken Business and Colonel Title

In 1930, he started selling chicken and other dishes his Shell Oil Company branded gas station until more and more travelers knew and loved his food. His popular tagline was “Sunday dinner, seven days a week.” His food became so well-known that he was able to buy a motel and turned it into a diner called “Sanders Court and Cafe.” It became one of the most popular stops in Kentucky. In 1935, the governor of Kentucky, Ruby Laffon, gave Sanders the title of Colonel “in recognition of his contributions to the state’s cuisine.” From then on, he became known as “Colonel Sanders.”

Kentucky Fried Chicken. Colonel Sanders by Richard CroftCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Colonel Sanders signing an autograph for a fan. Edgy01 at English WikipediaCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Few other tragedies happened after, like his diner burning down and him going back to being broke and sleeping in his car. In the end, he was able to convince people to buy his fried chicken recipe, and it became a success that he sold his company in 1964 for $2 million (that’s about $15 million today).