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Colonel Sanders’ Epic Birthday Party

By Tom Wilmes |

Colonel Sanders' birthday celebrations were larger than life — just like the man himself.

Today, September 9th, would have been Colonel Harland Sanders' 126th birthday.


Although he passed away in 1980, the Colonel's legacy still looms large over Kentucky and around the world. So much so that it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish the man from the myth.

We enjoyed a rare glimpse behind the bucket, so to speak, when a local woman brought in a treasure trove of Col. Sanders' memorabilia to the Kentucky Fun Mall recently.


The collection, compiled over decades by a Sanders family friend, includes candid snapshots of the Colonel relaxing at home and with his grandchildren — always done up in at least a white shirt, black string tie and with his signature black-rimmed glasses and white goatee — along with signed photos, recipe books, magazines and more. The stash also includes a program for the Colonel's 89th birthday party in Louisville. And it was epic.




The pamphlet is printed front and back with details of the celebration, to which hundreds of franchisees and their guests were invited. It was more mini-festival than birthday party.


There were demonstrations and exhibits of traditional Kentucky crafts, a children's area — including a four-hour stretch when "Zippo the Clown" mingled with the crowd — and a daylong lineup of music on three stages. Riders in the Sky; Dixieland Allstars; a band called Your Father's Mustache; and Hee Haw's Grady Nut all performed. Barbara Mandrell's headlining set was followed by a giant fireworks display. There was birthday cake for everyone.


It had to have been a satisfying day for a man who started his fried-chicken empire at the age of 65 with little more than a chicken recipe and a $105 Social Security check.


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Sanders was born September 9, 1890, on a farm outside Henryville, Indiana. His mother went to work after his father died, and young Harland looked after his siblings and did most of the cooking. He tried his hand at many different jobs throughout his life, including street-car conductor, railroad fireman, steamboat ferry operator, secretary, insurance salesman, tire salesman, and service station manager.


As the story goes, and according to this 1970 New Yorker profile, Sanders was managing a service station in Corbin, Kentucky, and started offering home-cooked meals to hungry travelers. That's also where he developed his secret blend of 11 herbs and spices and perfected his technique for making finger lickin' good fried chicken and gravy.


A traveling salesman (and Kentuckian) named Duncan Hines included Sanders' roadside cafe in his "Adventures in Good Eating" pamphlet — a sort of early version of Yelp — and cars packed the parking lot. That is until a newly built interstate bypassed the filling station and Sanders auctioned off the business.



Sanders decided to focus on franchising his Kentucky Fried Chicken recipe instead. He'd drive across the country, often sleeping in his car, and call on restaurant owners. He'd offer to demonstrate his fried-chicken recipe and, if they liked it, would show the restaurant's cooks how to make it and receive a small commission for each chicken sold.


Sanders sold the American franchise rights for Kentucky Fried Chicken to John Y. Brown, Jr. and a partner in 1964 for $2 million. He continued to play a central role in the company for many years.


Happy birthday, Colonel!


For more information about the collection and to enquire about purchasing it, send an email to


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