In 1956, the federal government announced the creation of a new interstate highway, to run the length of the country from the Canadian border in Michigan down almost to the southern tip of Florida near Miami. While many drivers celebrated the birth of I-75, for Harland Sanders it spelled disaster. He ran a small restaurant on Route 25 in Corbin, Kentucky, long noted for the quality of its country ham and, more recently, for its fried chicken. The new interstate shadowed and largely replaced Route 25 and, it was clear, would siphon away most of his passing customers.
Sanders was 66, and could have been forgiven for contemplating retirement after an arrestingly full life. He was born in Indiana, near the Kentucky border; his father died when he was five, and he left school at twelve so he could help to look after his siblings at home. His mother remarried, to a violent man who took to beating the young Harland, and soon after he ran away from home, finding work variously as a farm-hand, soldier, railwayman, insurance salesman and ferryboat pilot.
In 1930, at the age of 40, he moved to Corbin, and opened a petrol station on Route 25. Finding business slow during the Depression, he started a sideline serving food to his customers; this proved a far more lucrative line of business than selling petrol, and in 1932 Sanders bought and opened a small restaurant nearby. It thrived, and he put down roots in the community. He was made a Kentucky colonel (though it was only much later that he started playing up to this with his famous white suit) and successfully bounced back when a fire destroyed the restaurant in 1939.
Still, when the new interstate was announced, Sanders was faced with ruin. He sold his restaurant, barely covering his debts and tax bills, and found himself on the verge of bankruptcy, surviving on Social Security payments. There was one glimmer of light: a few years earlier, he had licensed his innovative recipe for fried chicken to a restaurant in the unlikely location of Salt Lake City, Utah. Now he hit the road, criss-crossing America as a travelling salesman, visiting restaurants and persuading them to start selling his chicken.
He was quite a salesman. Seven years later, in 1963, he had 1,000 franchise outlets, in all 50 states. Sanders shipped his secret spice mix to franchisees in 100-pound barrels, carefully stripped of any identifying marks that might betray the origin of the ingredients, and was paid a royalty of five cents for each chicken sold. He became immediately wealthy and, after his likeness began appearing on the chicken buckets and the restaurant signage, a celebrity, too, appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1964. But for all his commercial astuteness, he sold the American rights to KFC that same year for the comparatively trivial sum of $2m. He spent the rest of his life building up franchises outside the US, notably in Canada, and building a charitable foundation. When he died, at the age of 90, in 1980, his face was recognised by 98% of the population of the United States.
We absorbed this surprisingly inspiring story over breakfast in the Sanders Café, the lovingly preserved restaurant built by Sanders in Corbin in 1940. The interior was dark and homely with panelled wood and cosy booths, as far from the garishly lit KFCs of the modern era as can be imagined. At the back was a rather austere and industrial kitchen where his recipe had been perfected. The atmosphere was quiet and almost reverent, and we dutifully pored over exhibits of early newspaper clippings and spice barrels along with a few other passing pilgrims before sampling a trayful of Harland’s genius from a tiny modern KFC counter in the corner. It was hard to fathom that the eating craze that has blighted a hundred British high streets with low-rent Tennessee, Mississippi and Texas Fried Chickens began here in this pleasant wooden room.
There wasn’t much else to Corbin – now a service town for the same I-75 whose construction changed the face of chicken consumption – and so we left for the walk north to London. Now that we’ve joined this wide interstate corridor, we’ve entered an entirely different Kentucky from the grim, deprived woods that we’ve been walking through for the last few days. We spent today in rolling, grassy hills, walking on back-roads lined with brightly flowering dogwoods and pear trees and passing by smart bungalows with their gardens bursting with neat beds of tulips. We took the unbeatably named Lily Sublimity Road through white-fenced paddocks and freshly painted Baptist churches, and on the horizon a line of pale blue water towers announced the city limits of London.
London was the first place in Kentucky that we’ve seen that had a feeling of prosperity, however slight. Before we got to our motel near the interstate, we passed through a smart little suburb of detached homes on lush lawns (our first hint of the bluegrass to come) and riotous purple dogwoods. It doesn’t have much in common with the original London – it only really comes alive in September, for example, when a quarter of a million people descend on it for the World Chicken Festival – but even if only in name, it made us feel at home.