Colonel Sanders


Every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles out there, I’m finally putting my archive of interesting tombstones to good use.

Even though Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville is the final resting place of many fascinating people, there’s no mistake about who the main attraction is. Simply follow the yellow line painted on various paths throughout the cemetery, and you’ll eventually find that all roads lead to Colonel Sanders.

Though his legendary status may lead you to believe that Harland Sanders has always been a success, he actually didn’t make his millions until late in life. When he received his first social security check for $105 in 1955, Sanders took his mother’s chicken recipe and a special pressure cooker and created what would eventually become the KFC empire.

Before that, Sanders did various stints as a railroader, a streetcar conductor, an insurance salesman, and a lawyer  (that one ended after he got into a courtroom fistfight with his own client). In 1929, he opened a service station in Corbin, Kentucky. In addition to pumping gas, Sanders served home cooked meals. They were so good, in fact, that restaurant reviewer Duncan Hines declared it a “very good place to stop en route to Cumberland Falls and the Great Smokies,” especially the “sizzling steaks, fried chicken, country ham, hot biscuits." Though he hadn’t found his secret 11-herbs-and-spices recipe yet, Sanders had definitely found his calling.

When the new interstate came through, the restaurant in Corbin took a hit. Sanders sold the property at a loss and decided to focus instead on franchising. He married Claudia, one of his waitresses (here’s a cringe-inducing quote: "I always hired widows with children, because they had to work and didn't have any foolishness about them"), and they took their schtick on the road. "Claudia and me got up sort of an act. We'd go into a franchise place, and she'd wear the old-time dress, the hoop skirt you know, and I'd be in my colonel outfit,” he once said. “She'd serve the chicken, and when I was done in the kitchen I'd come out and mingle with the guests."

Speaking of the iconic colonel outfit, he had at least 15 of them, in everything from summer linen to winter wool. The reason they were white, he claimed, was because they hid the flour well when he wiped his hands on his pants.

The franchising efforts made him a millionaire, but it was hard for the aging colonel to keep up with the demands of 600-plus restaurants. He sold the business for a pretty penny in 1964, but continued to be the spokesperson for Kentucky Fried Chicken, including making personal appearances.

Stacy Conradt

Oh, and the answer to the popular “Was he really a Colonel?” question is yes ... and no. No, he wasn’t a military colonel. But he was a Kentucky colonel, the highest honor the Commonwealth of Kentucky can give to a person. Other famous Kentucky colonels included Fred Astaire and Eddie Cantor.

Sanders died in 1980, succumbing to leukemia at the age of 90. His body lay in state at the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort; more than 1000 people attended the actual funeral. Even though he’s been gone for almost 35 years, Sanders remains one of the most beloved characters in the history of advertising, business, and Kentucky. And if you need proof of that, just go to Cave Hill Cemetery and follow the yellow line.

See all entries in our Grave Sightings series here.