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A visit to the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken

J. H. Osborne • Nov 1, 2019 at 1:54 PM

On our trip to Kentucky last week, Mom and I finally took the time to visit a historic site we’ve passed many times and often commented we should stop and experience. We’d done a drive-by before, and once stretched our legs and took pictures with the historic marker out front.

It’s the Harland Sanders Café, located in North Corbin, Kentucky. That’s about 125 miles from Kingsport, via 11W and 25E. It’s a pretty drive and would make an easy day trip for any of you who would like to see where Colonel Sanders cooked up his first batch of Kentucky Fried Chicken. It continues today as a KFC restaurant with the same menu items you can get at other KFCs. But it has history and is filled with memorabilia and artifacts suiting its distinction as the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places on August 7, 1990.

My family’s appreciation of KFC goes way back to my childhood. It became a special and regular part of our life as soon as the Lynn Garden Drive location opened. My paternal grandparents lived high atop the hill not too far past the Lynn Garden location of KFC. It was a staple for summer picnics on their lawn or patio, especially when my Uncle Harold and his family would be in town. We’d even buy the signature buckets to take along on hamburger cookouts at Duck Island or Eastman Cabins.

But our biggest piece of KFC-related family lore is a comical one, involving my grandmother, my father, and, well ... a lot of their fellow congregants at West View Primitive Baptist Church. My grandfather died in 1972. From then on, until she died 25 years later, Dad was grandmother’s primary caregiver. She didn’t drive. Her oldest and youngest sons lived hours away and had busy lives. Dad’s third brother lived here and was a lot of help and company to “Momaw,” as my siblings and I called her. But he died in 1980. One fall Momaw went on an extended trip to visit with Uncle Harold, in suburban D.C., and then back down to visit Uncle Paul and Aunt Ann in Lynchburg. She was gone several weeks.

When she got home she announced she didn’t want to see chicken any time soon, as Uncle Paul and Aunt Ann had apparently been on a chicken kick most of her visit. “They feed me chicken about every day,” she said. “Oh, it was fixed different ways. And it was good. But I am so tired of chicken.”

Dad and Mom, ever dutiful, didn’t mention chicken whether dining out with Momaw or doing her grocery shopping. When chicken eventually became mentionable and potentially edible, we apparently didn’t make a trip to KFC for a while. If memory serves me, this would have been a period when we ate often at Piccadilly and fried chicken was a go-to for both Dad and Momaw. I think we were also going to the Mountaineer a lot, largely for fried chicken. More often than not, she would take any opportunity to repeat a story about Dad as a young boy. “He’d always pick the biggest, best fried chicken breast from the platter — and just put it beside his plate. He’d eat everything else, and save that chicken breast while the other boys would be eyeing it.”

Anyhow, one Sunday after church let out, Mom, Dad and Momaw were standing out front talking with other members. As one group started toward their car they mentioned they were headed to Colonel Sanders’ to get some Kentucky Fried Chicken.

“Oh, that sounds soooo good,” Momaw said, a bit of sadness in her voice. “I just love that Kentucky Fried Chicken. It’s so moist and has the best taste. It’s been so long since I had any. It’s been a long, long time since I had any. I don’t know why. I’ve always liked it. But we haven’t stopped there in a long time.” So there Dad, a deacon and her known chauffeur and food-delivery source stood as she pulled tighter together the grey fur collar on her vintage, blue, nubly wool overcoat. (It was as if she clutched her pearls, but they were covered by the coat.) Dad didn’t say a word. But a few minutes later he was turning the car into the Lynn Garden KFC. Momaw asked why he was stopping there. “I don’t want any chicken today,” she said, noting she had food at home a plenty.

“Oh, you’re having some chicken,” Dad said. “I’m getting you some chicken. You can eat it. Or you can just put it next to your plate like me when I was a boy. But you’re going to have some Kentucky Fried Chicken before you see everybody at church again tonight.” And she did.

Harland Sanders ran a restaurant from 1940-1956 in what is now the historic site Mom and I ate at in Corbin. According to the official site of the Kentucky Department of Tourism:

Sanders moved to North Corbin in 1930 and started a service station across the street from the present location of the Harland Sanders Café along U.S. Route 25. Sanders served meals for travelers in the back of the service station at his own dining table, which seated six people. By 1937, the culinary skills of Sanders became well known and he built the Sanders Café, which seated 142 people. Two years later, the restaurant was destroyed by fire. Shortly after the fire in 1939, construction began on the present Sanders Café, along with the addition of a motel. The restaurant-motel complex reopened on July 4, 1940. Sanders developed his famous secret recipe at the café during the 1940s. A new addition to the café was a model of a motel room located in the adjacent Sanders' Motel. This was used to persuade customers to spend the night at the motel. Business continued to boom as it was located along U.S. 25, the main north-south route through central Kentucky. This soon changed with the completion of Interstate 75, which bypassed the restaurant and city entirely. Sanders sold the café in 1956 and began selling franchises for Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Mom and I loved our visit to the Sanders Cafe. We got a lot more than just a meal. We learned some KFC history. And reminisced about some of our own.

Did you know the Colonel’s wife had her own famous Kentucky restaurant? It’s between Lexington and Louisville. I’ll tell you about our visit there next week.

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