by Phil Patton
Roadside locations with access became premium properties, increasing many times in value as the Interstate and other new highway systems were constructed. In such high-priced locations, only the proven enterprise, usually the franchise, could survive, bunched together in little villages, "easy on, easy off," as the signs boasted, shelved above the super- highway and centered on nothing but the bridge and off-ramp, the cloverleaf their village green.
One town bypassed by the Interstates, similar to and yet different from so many others, was Corbin, Kentucky.
The natural feature near Corbin of which the town is proudest is a moonbow. A moonbow is the nocturnal version of a rainbow: a miraculous deployment of the spectrum through a water spray, with a bright moon instead of the sun supplying the light. There are believed to be only two natural moonbows in the world. One is at the foot of Victoria Falls on the Zambesi River in Zaire. The other is at the foot of Cumberland Falls, in the green and gentle Kentucky hills near Corbin. Corbin, oldtimers will tell you, was created by the railroad, nurtured by neighboring coal mines, and brought to maturity by the automobile. From time to time, the curious would come to view the moonbow, especially when a big harvest moon came up of an autumn evening and couples in search of romance would snuggle under blankets with a flask and wait for the phenomenon to manifest itself.
Even with the moonbow, and the various parks and lakes that surround the town, and the proximity of the Cumberland Gap, through which Daniel Boone led his pioneers, Corbin has never been a powerful magnet for drawing tourists. For most of its history, the town has been more famous as a place people went through than one they went to.
When Americans first began to take to their automobiles for fun, many of them came through Corbin; along the Dixie Highway, from the Midwest and the North, en route to Florida. The Dixie Highway ran right through Corbin's main street and jammed it with tourists. People would stop and then later remember the little town. Corbin residents would themselves go to Florida and meet people from other parts of the country who would say, "Corbin? In Kentucky? That little town with all the traffic jams?"
In many areas, the Dixie Highway, officially designated U.S. Route 25, split into two routes when the association that marked it couldn't agree on which set of businesses to leave out. One place where this happens is just north of Corbin, where U.S. 25 West veered south toward Knoxville and U.S. 25 East bore off toward Asheville, North Carolina. At that fork took place one of the exemplary stories of road legend, tracing the change from Ma-and-Pa enterprise to modern corporate roadside business.
In 1929, a man from Indiana moved down to run a new gasoline station that Shell Oil was building at the fork. He painted his name and the word "Servistation" on the portico over his pumps. He joined the Rotary and the Kiwanis and the Masons and soon was so well established in town that everyone assumed he had always lived there.
He was a friend of some of the many good-roads men in town. He hated the railways, where he had his start in life as a stoker on the Seminole Limited of the Illinois Central Railroad. He left because of a tendency to get into fights with foremen along the lines.
He became known in Corbin as a charitable man, bringing ice cream to the Galilean boys orphanage one afternoon and feeding the boys until their bellies swelled. Occasionally he delivered babies in the poor mountain homes around Corbin. But he also had a short temper. The area around the station was known, like many another in the Appalachians and their foothills, as "Hell's Half-Acre," from its poverty and from the vicious fights that would regularly break out among bootleggers. Then the man would get angry and chase the bootleggers off his property with a rifle, shouting and swearing as he waved the gun around.
When the man decided to install a compressed air pump, he kindly had the installer run a line across the road to his competitor. The competitor, who spent most of his time strumming a mandolin and tending a pet pig, was less than ambitious and soon sold his station, which had a better position, commanding as it did the wide part of the curve, to the man who had given him the air.
After a while, the man began preparing snacks for his customers. Then he bought a sixteen-foot piece of linoleum "rug" on credit, laid it in a little storage room in the corner of his station, dragged in his kitchen table and some chairs, and called it a cafe. The man had learned to cook early in his life and knew how to turn out fine ham and eggs breakfasts, fried chicken and fried okra, lemon pie and pound cakes for dessert.
As time went on, the cafe became famous among tourists. The man spent hours driving through the adjoining country, learning as much as he could about road conditions--which were constantly changing as WPA-financed repair projects were finished--so as to advise his patrons, and scouting barns on which to paint advertisements. He chose barns because the area was full of hunters who shot at billboards. They would be more cautious if they knew that behind the sign there was a cow or mule whose owner might come after them.
He expanded the restaurant. He installed tablecloths, although they didn't always match, and flowers, glads from the sideyard. Sometimes the place took on the air of a Hopper painting: an eloping couple down from Nashville would sit alone, holding hands and watching the snow pile up outside. At other times, it was full and jovial, as when a well-lubricated carload of couples on the way back from a Tennessee-Kentucky football game would stop for dinner.
It was difficult, however, for travelers of the time to distinguish among the various Ma-and-Pa eateries. They quickly learned the foolishness of "following the truckers." They found out that down home advertising didn't always lead them to good food.
But in Corbin they found the real thing, a man who kept inquiring about how they liked the food, who would fly into a tantrum at the cooks and waitresses when anything went wrong, who installed a sign in Olde English script bearing the legend "Good will: The disposition of a pleased customer to return to the place where he has been well treated," who put on his menu phrases like "Country ham breakfast-$1.50. Not worth it--but mighty good."
He entertained the customers. He had a pet crow named Jim Crow that would pick pennies out of his cufflinks. He told stories about the local moonshiners and tall tales of his days working on the railroad and getting in fights with his bosses. When the audience was deemed appropriate, he poured over these stories, like gravy over his ham or chicken, a profanity whose color and inventiveness was remembered years later by his listeners. "He had a heart as big as a barrel," said a man who knew him then, "but, Lord, he would cuss a blue streak."
People remembered the owner and his stories and the good food and they would return year after year. When Duncan Hines, the critic of road food, who was from Bowling Green, Kentucky, included the cafe among the listings in his popular little book called Adventures in Good Eating, business boomed.
Eventually the man added a motel on to the restaurant, put shutters and flower planters on its windows, planted azaleas and dogwoods out front, deployed metal chairs in a variety of pastel colors on the little lawn, and Tudored up the whole place with fake half-timbers. Out front, the sign advertised tiled bathrooms, steam heat, and radios in every room.
Thus, by the time World War II broke out, the man, who was of course Harland Sanders, had become one of America's more prosperous roadside entrepreneurs. He had made some political contacts, and a few years before he had been named a "Kentucky Colonel" by Governor Rudy Laffoon--a wholly honorary but convenient designation that, of course, he was to exploit to the utmost.
After the war, he grew a little goatee and began to wear a string tie that seemed appropriate to his title. The image helped him when he chatted up the patrons. "Time to go out and do a little coloneling," he would say with a sign to his kitchen staff as he headed out into the dining room.
Fried chicken was not originally one of Sanders's best-selling items. He loved chicken and knew how to cook it well, but could not do it quickly enough or keep it fresh for long enough to make it an economical item on his menu. Good fried chicken takes at least half an hour, and, more realistically, forty-five minutes to cook.
In 1939 he had first encountered the pressure cooker. Experimenting with it, he found a way to cook chicken faster. He added it to his menu, scrupulously straining the oil after each batch.
He sought the perfect spice combination, mixing the spices on a clean concrete floor on the back porch of his home in Corbin, scooping a crater in a pile of flour and swirling in the spices.
The much-touted secret formula of "eleven herbs and spices" was not the critical element in the success of the chicken. It was speed in cooking, and constant filtering and changing of the oil to keep it from oxidizing. Packaging was also crucial: the regionalism, the Ma-and-Pa values, the quality and predictability, all summed up in the figurehead of the Colonel.
Then, in 1957, plans for the new Interstate system were announced, including the construction of I-75, bypassing Corbin. The town fought the move, appealing to state highway officials, but the officials knew about the famous traffic jams on the main street in Corbin, and the most they would do was move the Interstate a few miles closer to town.
Sanders had been bypassed before, when his Asheville motel and restaurant had been left high and dry by a new turnoff. Two years before the bypass, he claimed later, he had turned down $164,000 for his place. Now he auctioned it off for $75,000. Sanders was sixty-six. With the money he made from selling the restaurant and his $105-a-month Social Security check to live on, he set out in his Oldsmobile to salvage what he could of his capital -- his reputation and his recipes. He began to try to sell franchises for his chicken recipe.
The Interstate system was to give a huge boost to franchising all over the country, strengthening American dependence on the car and thereby helping the older strips and in addition, with its intersections, practically mandating good locations for gas stations, motels, and restaurants.
Sanders gave away his first franchise to his friend Pete Harman, a Salt Lake City restauranteur with whom he attended religious meetings, and began to sell others. Sanders roamed the Midwest, cooking his chicken as a demonstration for the restaurant owners and, when he could, sneaking KFC place mats onto the man's tables. Some nights Sanders and his wife Claudia, one of his waitresses whom he had married in the late forties, would sleep in the Oldsmobile. Harman, who was a bit more conventional than Sanders, touted the chicken franchises at meetings of the National Restaurant Association.
This was not a slick corporate operation: Sanders continued to trade on his homeyness, his stories, his image. He put old friends of his, who had gone bankrupt, in the business. Later, he would come back to Corbin and give money to people in trouble.
The local franchisees made up their business as they went along. A Georgia outlet ran a promotion featuring Miss Georgia Poultry Princess. A Clarksville, Tennessee, franchisee painted his new Ford Mustang in the red and white stripes of the corporate image. A skydiver who landed in the parking lot was used to promote the opening of the KFC at Bambi's Motel in Griffin, Georgia.
By 1960 Kentucky Fried Chicken was available in 2001 outlets; by 1963, it had 600 outlets and was the largest fast-food chain in the country, larger than McDonald's, larger than Shoney's or White Castle.
In 1964 Sanders sold out for $2 million to an ambitious young lawyer from a good political family named John Y. Brown and a wealthy investor named Jack Massey. Brown and Massey promptly began affecting string ties like the Colonel and touting the business with the energy of patent medicine salesmen.
They somehow managed to get the Colonel booked on Johnny Carson's Tonight show, where he appeared along with a plexiglass box containing $2 million in singles.
Over a period of just a few years, Kentucky Fried Chicken, like most of the fast-food, motel, and other franchises, changed from the most informal sort of family-and-friends-based organizations to slick, standardized outfits, with the number of steps between fryer and counter scientifically calculated to be the same in Paducah as in Portland, and with extensive national television advertising.
In 1971 the operation was purchased by Heublein, the liquor company, for $275 million. In 1982 Heublein was purchased by the huge R. J. Reynolds Industries, best known for its tobacco products but now a highly diversified megacompany. The Colonel became a lonesome figurehead in this corporate world. The middle managers had confused the man with the logo and forgotten that the Colonel was flesh and blood. At one point he had to threaten an embarrassing lawsuit to get the residuals due him for commercial appearances.
Everyone knows how Sanders became one of the most recognizable figures in the country, in the early seventies polling ahead of Richard Nixon and just behind Santa Claus in "familiarity factor." From Harland Sanders, Hoosier emigre, he had become the Colonel, and then, as he was known around the new Louisville corporate headquarters, "the old man," and still later, when he was little more than a logo, "the mug."
As he grew older and became ill with leukemia, his trips down the hall from his office in the big pseudo-antebellum mansion of a corporate headquarters to greet visitors at the Harland Sanders Museum grew less frequent. A life-sized plastic replica of the Colonel, like those in many KFC stores, was placed in the museum.
It was startlingly lifelike, with the string tie at just the same angle it assumed in every photograph of the Colonel, the glasses with the black top frames and arms exactly replicated, and the whiskers of the goatee pulled together in just the same way.