Dan Wallace and Steve Heimann are my kind of readers. They’re newspaper readers, the rare kind who read through the entire story rather than skipping to something else after two paragraphs.
They even read whole stories in the New York Times.
That’s where Dan, worship minister at First Christian Church, and Steve, Bartholomew Circuit Court judge, came across a lengthy Sunday piece about Corbin, the small eastern Kentucky town where Col. Harland Sanders cooked up the first batch of what we know today as Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Much of the article dealt with the museum established in the small restaurant called Sanders Cafe, where the colonel got his start, but three-fourths of the way through the piece, writer William Grimes threw in some early biographical information about the man with the famous white suit and string tie.
Sanders came by his fame late in life. According to the Times article, he had tried several careers before hitting on the one that made him rich.
It was the paragraph listing some of his early jobs that got the attention of the two local men. Sanders “had been a secretary to the chamber of commerce in Columbus, Ind.”
Both made a point of sending me copies of the article, but the Times mention was very familiar to me. I had written about it as early as 22 years ago. Back in 1990, I came across a reference in the history of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce that the fried chicken mogul had worked there sometime around 1915.
The history was compiled by the late Bob Marshall, former editor of The
Republic, and noted “the chamber also hired short-time employees to solicit new members, and one of these was Col. Harland Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. Years later, while in Columbus starting another chicken franchise, he recalled that time ‘as a few months around 1915.’”
An additional Sanders discovery emerged from the archives of The Republic, a promotional photo of the goateed gentleman. On the back was the caption “, once Columbus Chamber of Commerce manager. About 1918.”
Both stints must have either been short or he was commuting from some other area because there’s no listing for a Harland Sanders in the Columbus city directories from 1915 to 1920.
There was a listing in the 1921 directory, however, but the job printed along with his home address had nothing to do with the Chamber of Commerce.
Actually there were two listings for Sanders in that book. One was for the residence he shared with his wife, Josephine, and brother, Clarence, at 1105 Washington St. The second was a business listing for the Harland Manufacturing Co. at the northeast corner of Cottage Avenue and 16th Street. The company’s product was identified as “acetyline generators,” with H.D. Sanders listed as the president and C.E. Sanders as the treasurer.
The exact fate of the Harland Manufacturing Co. is uncertain, mainly because the colonel jumped into and out of so many occupations that they often became mixed up.
In his book, “The Colonel,” newspaper columnist John Ed Pearce mentioned Sanders’ early Columbus experiences with the chamber by reporting that he had applied for and been accepted as the executive secretary of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce. However, in an unflattering reference to this city’s business climate, Pearce wrote that the chamber position didn’t work out because Columbus “provided few opportunities for business entrepreneurs.”
There seems to be some confusion about the acetylene business. Pearce didn’t mention the Columbus operation but did write about a company Sanders had established in Jeffersonville manufacturing and selling acetylene lamps. It also failed because, in Pearce’s words, “it was the wrong time and wrong place for acetylene lamps.”
It’s possible Pearce might have been writing about the Columbus business. “There have been so many things written about the colonel over the years, and some of the writers have mixed up some of the material,” Pauline Sanders, then a Seymour resident and the wife of Harland’s nephew, Jim, recalled in 1990.
Incidentally, Jim was the son of Clarence, who decided on a lifetime pursuit decidedly different and far less profitable than his brother’s choice. Clarence became a barber in northern Indiana.
Although some of the documentation is a bit shaky, there seems little doubt that Harland Sanders can be listed as a former Columbus resident and businessman. Too bad the business he started here didn’t work out like the one in Corbin, Ky.
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.