Walking on Holy Ground: Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken Cafe & Museum, Corbin, KY
Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Tuesday, August 6, 2013
In Kentucky, Fried Chicken History
Published: August 24, 2012
WHEN making his rounds as a traveling salesman for a Chicago printing company, Duncan Hines would occasionally pull off the Dixie Highway in Corbin, Ky., and eat at Sanders Cafe. In the 1939 edition of “Adventures in Good Eating,” his pioneering restaurant guide, he recommended the cafe and its adjoining motor court as “very good place to stop en route to Cumberland Falls and the Great Smokies,” highlighting its “sizzling steaks, fried chicken, country ham, hot biscuits.”
The cafe is still there, only now it incorporates a museum and holds down a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, for one huge, unignorable reason. The owner, chef and resident genius of the place was none other than Colonel Harland Sanders, who, on this hallowed ground, cooked the first batch of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Cumberland Falls does not work the magic it once did, and Corbin itself is not high on anyone’s list of tourist destinations. But the Colonel Harland Sanders Cafe and Museum is a modest must. In addition to capturing a pivotal moment in the mass-marketing of American vernacular food, it evokes a dreamlike time, before the arrival of the Interstate System and its proliferation of fast-food restaurants and chain hotels, when traveling the American highway was a thrilling, high-risk proposition, with marvelous discoveries and ghastly disappointments waiting at every turn.
In its present form, the Sanders Cafe and Museum was born in 1990, the 100th anniversary of Colonel Sanders’s birth. JRN, a Tennessee-based company that operates nearly 200 KFC franchises in the Southeast, was about to open a modern KFC restaurant next to the old cafe. To mark the great birthday, it put out a call for artifacts and memorabilia that would allow it to celebrate the Colonel, his cafe and his fried chicken.
All sorts of stuff came out of the woodwork, which makes the Sanders Museum a cabinet of curiosities rather than a scholarly enterprise. It’s a little of this, a little of that, and a lot of the Colonel, memorialized in a bronze bust, two strange-looking all-white life-size sculptures and a vintage store display that depicts him, larger than life, holding a bucket of chicken and radiating joy. His title, first bestowed in 1935, is an honorific conferred by the state.
The museum managed to get its hands on Bertha, the actual pressure cooker in which Sanders, years away from coloneldom, began experimenting with pressure-frying as a way to reduce the cooking time for his chicken. At the back of the cafe, the old open kitchen has been restored and outfitted with period ovens and dishwashers.
The historic trove includes a 100-pound barrel, dating from 1956, that contains the 11 herbs and spices that gave Kentucky Fried Chicken its distinctive flavor and its air of mystery. There’s a handwritten recipe for a mock-oyster casserole based on chopped eggplant, crushed crackers and cream; a vintage postcard that shows a squirrel drinking out of a giant Kentucky Fried Chicken cup through a straw; and a pair of wooden shoes presented to the Colonel when he visited Amsterdam in 1974. It’s a very mixed bag, in other words.
Many of the 75,000 customers who walk into the place each year simply order their fried chicken and biscuits and sit down in the old cafe’s dining room, with the original maple tables and chairs by Willett, a Louisville company whose furniture was enormously popular from the 1930s through the 1950s.
If curiosity moves them, they drift across the dining room to look at a lovingly restored model room that the Colonel installed to advertise the motor court next door. Theorizing that women had a big say in where the family stayed for the night, he placed it squarely on the path to the ladies’ room. That way, female diners could not avoid admiring its immaculate black-and-white bathroom tiles, maple furniture and pristine white chenille bedspreads.
As the motel room suggests, the Colonel explored many entrepreneurial byways before emerging as the public face of Kentucky Fried Chicken, the grandfatherly figure in the white suit with the white mustache and manicured goatee.
He was a much wilder, more colorful figure than the museum or the official company histories let on. By the time he arrived in Corbin, in the early 1930s, to run a failing gas station, he had already been a farmhand, a railroad worker, a country lawyer, an insurance salesman, a ferryboat operator, a secretary to the chamber of commerce in Columbus, Ind., and a salesman for Michelin tires.
Josh Ozersky’s zesty “Colonel Sanders and the American Dream” (University of Texas Press, 2012) tells of a lethal shootout that pitted Sanders and two Shell Oil representatives against the owner of the Standard Oil station across the road. The Colonel, gun blazing, emerged victorious.
Often, motorists asked Sanders to recommend a place to eat, and he soon began cooking home-style meals, which he served in a tiny room at the back of the gas station.
The impromptu kitchen evolved into a cafe, which spawned a motor court. The big draw in the early years was not fried chicken but a hearty breakfast of fried country ham, eggs and biscuits. A breakfast nook, with Willett furniture, a tiny table and red and white checkered tablecloths, has been lovingly restored and put behind glass in the cafe.
The whole operation burned down in 1939. The present cafe rose in gabled splendor a year later, along with a new motor court, now gone. In the KFC lobby, interested visitors can see the 1940 Sanders Court and Cafe, the old service station and surrounding businesses reconstructed in HO scale.
Kentucky made the Colonel. It almost unmade him, too. In the mid-1950s, with the cafe and court going gangbusters, the route of the new Interstate was announced. It swung several miles wide of the cafe, leaving the Colonel in the lurch. He sold his empire for just enough to pay his taxes and bills, and, after cashing his first Social Security check, for $105, hit the road with his pressure cooker to turn Kentucky Fried Chicken into a national franchise.
He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. As the historical marker outside the cafe points out, it all began in Corbin as a humble, seat-of-the pants operation. Turn off the highway, and you can still catch the flavor.
A version of this article appeared in print on August 26, 2012, on page TR4 of the New York edition with the headline: From Colonel Sanders: Roots And Chicken.