While there is little publicly available information regarding his time in Freemasonry, there is no doubt that Colonel Harland David Sanders demonstrated the values of the fraternity throughout his life. He was relentlessly committed to perfecting his craft, a philanthropist who used his hard-earned success to create and fund charities, and a proud businessman deeply invested in the quality of the company’s products.
Colonel Sanders is best known for founding the fast-food chicken restaurant chain Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and for becoming the face and symbol of the brand. What began with Sanders selling fried chicken from his roadside restaurant in Kentucky during the Great Depression has expanded into a global food chain with tens of thousands of locations in over 150 countries. His company introduced chicken as a staple in the fast-food industry and challenged the dominance of the hamburger.
The Colonel’s road to success was long and arduous. He held many odd jobs throughout the country, changed his career many times, and, for many years, struggled to find his personal recipe for success. Despite the challenges, he stayed true to what he knew, never faltered for fear of failure, and persevered to establish a food chain so “finger-lickin’ good” it became iconic.
Harland David Sanders was born on September 9, 1890, near Henryville, Indiana. He was the oldest of three children born to Wilbur David and Margaret Ann Sanders. The family attended the Advent Christian Church. His father worked his 80-acre farm until he broke his leg in a fall, then turned to work as a butcher in Henryville for two years before passing away while young Harland was only six.
In the wake of his father’s death, Harland helped take care of the family home. This responsibility included handling much of the cooking, a feat for which he clearly had a knack, having prepared and mastered several regional dishes by age seven, a portent of the great skill he would display in the kitchen throughout his life.
Within a couple of years of his father’s passing, Harland’s mother remarried for the first time, and he began working as a farmhand at age 10, the first of many odd jobs he held in his youth. In 1903, Harland dropped out of seventh grade to work and live on a nearby farm for a year before he left home and moved to Indianapolis, now only 13 years old, and began a job painting horse carriages.
A Traveling Man
In 1906, Sanders took his newfound independence one step further and enlisted in the United States Army in October using a falsified date of birth. He served as a wagoner in Cuba and was honorably discharged in early 1907. Still only 16, Harland moved to Sheffield, Alabama, where he began several jobs over the next few years. He worked with his uncle for the Southern Railway as a blacksmith’s helper, took a job cleaning out the ash pans of trains from the Northern Alabama Railroad, and progressed to steam engine stoker.
During his time in Alabama, Harland met and married Josephine King. The couple had three children, Margaret Josephine Sanders, Harland David Sanders Jr., and Mildred Marie Sanders. Josephine and Harland moved to Jackson, Tennessee, where Harland took work with the Illinois Central Railroad while studying law at night. Once qualified, Harland moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he spent three years practicing law before his career in the field came to an untimely end. Harland engaged in a courtroom brawl with his client and tarnished his reputation.
Although a low point in his life, Sanders pressed on in an effort to improve life for himself and his family. In 1916, Sanders secured a job selling life insurance for the Prudential Life Insurance Company. Never one to remain complacent, Sanders established a ferry boat company in 1920, operating on the Ohio River between Jeffersonville and Louisville. Creating this business proved to be a formative moment in his entrepreneurial career.
The Secret Recipe
Capitalizing on the success of his ferry company, Sanders sold his stock in the company for $22,000, equaling over $300,000 today. Soon, he relocated to Winchester, Kentucky, to work as a salesman for the Michelin Tire Company until he met the general manager of Standard Oil of Kentucky, who asked him to run a service station in Nicholasville. After the station closed because of the Great Depression, the Shell Oil Company offered Sanders a service station in North Corbin, Kentucky, where he began his professional career in the food service industry.
From his station in North Corbin, Sanders produced chicken dishes and other regional dishes. At first, with limited space and funds, Harland served his patrons from his home, inviting them to dine in his living room. Sanders was famously involved in a shootout with Matt Stewart, a local competitor during this time. Stewart was irate that Sanders repainted a road sign to advertise his business.
Stewart was sentenced to prison, eliminating Sanders’ local competition. Word of Sanders’ delicious cooking began to spread, and soon customers began visiting the area just for his food. He expanded his operation and moved to a nearby motel and restaurant capable of seating 142 people. By 1935, Sanders became more famous throughout the state, leading governor Ruby Laffoon to commission him as a Kentucky colonel. This commission raised Harland’s profile and increased patronage to his restaurant until his North Corbin restaurant and motel were destroyed in a fire in November 1939.
Undeterred, it was clear the Colonel, now age 50, had officially found his calling. Sanders acquired a motel in Asheville, North Carolina, and perfected his now-famous secret recipe for frying chicken using a pressure cooker. Unfortunately, fate threw another obstacle in Harland’s path: World War II. In December of 1941, the United States entered the war, and a ration on gas was issued, forcing Harland to close his motel.
The Birth of KFC
In 1952, Sanders franchised his chicken business for the first time to Pete Harman, a restaurant owner in Salt Lake City. Herman felt “Kentucky Fried Chicken” would be a novelty in the western region that attracted customers. Around this time, business slowed in North Carolina. Sanders opted to sell his restaurant and began traveling throughout the U.S., preparing, and selling his chicken to restaurants as he went. Sanders took charge of the business as his operation grew while his second wife, Claudia, mixed and shipped the spice blend to franchises. KFC was so successful that it became one of the first fast-food chains to expand internationally. A decade after he began franchising, Sanders opened restaurants in Canada, England, Australia, and Mexico.
By 1964, Sanders had over 600 franchised outlets, and life on the road had begun taking its toll. He sold his stake in Kentucky Fried for $2 million to investors. The next year, Sanders and Claudia moved to Mississauga, Ontario, to oversee his Canadian franchises while continuing to collect franchise and appearance fees both in Canada and in the U.S. With his signature look and demeanor, Sanders stayed on as KFC’s symbol, completing commercials and television appearances on behalf of the company.
Because of his expertise and experience creating the recipes used by KFC, the company’s executives continued to rely on him for input. Famously, the company changed the gravy sold at its locations to save money. Sanders, known for making surprise visits to KFC locations, grew disappointed in the quality of the food being sold under his image and name. In 1973, he sued Heublein Inc., which owned Kentucky Fried Chicken then, for improperly using the Colonel to sell products he had not developed. Heublein countersued Harland in 1975 for libel, unsuccessfully, in response to Sander’s decrying KFC’s “sludge” with a “wallpaper taste.”
Sanders was raised in Lodge No. 651 in Henryville, Indiana, in 1919 and later affiliated with Hugh Harris Lodge No. 938 in Corbin, Kentucky, in 1953. Although the details of his involvement in Masonic communities are limited, it is clear that the values of Freemasonry left an impression on the Colonel. Not only did he belong to several lodges during his more than 30 years of service, but he also was a proud philanthropist committed to our core Masonic value of Relief.
Before his death, Sanders established the Colonel Harland Sanders Charitable Organization. A wing of the Mississauga Hospital for Women’s and Children’s Care bears the name, “The Colonel Harland Sanders Family Care Center” in honor of his substantial donation. The Colonel’s foundation has made considerable donations to other Canadian children’s hospitals, including the McMaster Children’s Hospital, IWK Health Center, and Stollery Children’s Hospital. It continues to support Sander’s charitable endeavors, donating $500,000 to other Canadian charities as recently as 2016.
Death and legacy
At the age of 90, the Colonel passed to the Celestial Lodge after a bout with leukemia. Until his death in 1980, he traveled 250,000 miles a year, visiting the KFC empire he had founded. During the last two decades of his life, Colonel Sanders strictly wore his patented white garb and black tie during public appearances, bleaching his mustache and goatee to match his white hair.
KFC remains the world’s most popular chicken restaurant chain. When Sanders passed away, KFC had grown to include an estimated 6,000 outlets throughout 48 countries worldwide, generating $2 billion ($6.6 billion today) of sales annually. Today, the Colonel’s secret blend of 11 herbs and spices used in KFC’s recipe remains a closely guarded secret.