Colonel Sanders Started With A Gas Station And A Shoot-Out

By Nolan Moore on Thursday, January 8, 2015
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“The hard way builds solidly a foundation of confidence that cannot be swept away.” —Colonel Sanders

In A Nutshell

With his famous facial hair and trademark white suit, Colonel Sanders is one of the most recognizable people on the planet. But before the Colonel came up with his world-famous recipe of 11 herbs and spices, the man was running a gas station in Corbin, Kentucky. However, the Colonel almost never opened a single restaurant thanks to a trigger-happy business rival who wanted to send Sanders to the local cemetery.

The Whole Bushel

In the pantheon of fast food mascots, Colonel Sanders is right up there with Ronald McDonald and The Burger King. However, unlike most of his peers, Sanders was a real guy. Born in 1896, Harland Sanders led an interesting life, working as everything from a small-time lawyer to a ferryboat operator. Eventually, he wound up in Corbin, Kentucky running a Shell gas station on a nasty stretch of highway known as “Hell’s Half-Acre.”

The region was full of bootleggers, and there were plenty of gunfights to keep things lively. Wanting to protect his family and business, Sanders kept a gun beneath his cash register and a shotgun near his bed. But really, Sanders didn’t need to worry about desperadoes. Instead, he had to keep an eye on his rival down the street, a man named Matt Stewart. Stewart ran his own gas station, and as the two were competing for customers, they didn’t exactly get along.

Things got particularly tense after Sanders decided to advertise his business by painting a sign on a nearby railroad wall. This didn’t sit well with Stewart who promptly painted over Sanders’ sign. Furious, the Colonel threatened to shoot off Stewart’s head and then went back to repaint his billboard. Unfortunately, Matt Stewart was a stubborn fellow, and one day in the late 1920s, he grabbed a brush and started slapping paint on Sanders’ sign.

When Sanders learned what Stewart was doing, he was in the middle of a meeting with two Shell officials named Robert Gibson and H.D. Shelburne. Needless to say, the three men were not happy. Determined to put a stop to Stewart’s shenanigans, the trio loaded their guns, hopped into a car, and drove off to confront their petrol-pumping adversary. Only when Stewart saw them coming, he pulled out his pistol and pumped three bullets into Robert Gibson’s heart.

That’s when the Colonel sprang into action. He grabbed Gibson’s gun and started shooting back. At first, it seemed Stewart had the advantage because he was hiding behind the railroad wall, but the man was outnumbered two to one. One moment, he was winning the gunfight, and the next, he found himself surrounded. Shelburne put a bullet into Stewart’s hip, and Sanders blasted the man in the shoulder.

Bleeding and in pain, Stewart shouted, “Don’t shoot, Sanders! You’ve killed me!” Only Stewart didn’t die. Instead, the gun-toting gasman was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Sanders and Shelburne, on the other hand, were found not guilty, and Sanders went back to his Shell station where he started serving steak, ham, biscuits, and—you guessed it—fried chicken to hungry customers. Soon, he was running a full-fledged restaurant across the street, and his food was so popular that Governor Ruby Laffoon gave Sanders the honorary title of Kentucky Colonel.

Eventually, Sanders sold his restaurant so he could develop his fast food franchise, and the rest is history. Today you can find KFC restaurants in over 80 countries and territories. As for Matt Stewart, well, after two years behind bars, he was shot to death by a deputy sheriff. No one knows for sure, but rumors has it the deputy was a paid gunman, hired to assassinate Stewart by Robert Gibson’s family.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image credit: Jonathan McIntosh
Colonel Sanders: History
NY Times: In Kentucky, Fried Chicken History
Colonel Sanders and the American Dream, by Josh Ozersky