Visiting Col. Sander’s first restaurant site

By Mike Steely

I’m old enough and have been reporting long enough to have interviewed Colonel Harland Sanders and lived, as a child, close enough to his original Sander’s Cafe to know his story. Schooled in Kentucky for 10 years, how could I not know about Col. Sanders? It’s like knowing that the cardinal is the Bluegrass state bird or the Daniel Boone became famous while venturing into and settling in the state.

A few months ago, my wife and I went camping at Levi Jackson Park, a former state park that is now owned and operated by the city of London just north of Corbin. The campground is traditional and large— the sites are spacious with electricity and water with many on hills that require trailer leveling. But we had a nice stay, the park gets quiet after sunset and it was cooler there than in Knoxville at the time.

Many of my Levi Jackson Park memories are from my childhood when, as 4-H members, we went to the J.M. Feltner Memorial 4-H Camp there each summer. I recall the normal youth camp memories, bonfires, songs, sleeping in large tents, etc. and I remember the long walks from the camp to the Levi Jackson swimming pool each day just down the road.

We drove up to the 4-H camp and were permitted through the gate to drive around the main assembly hall, which is more or less the same building I recall as I child. But the large tents have been replaced with bunkhouses. The camp has a large lake with canoes and its own pool and everything looked to be well-maintained.

We went to the pool area, which had changed a lot, with two pools and a kiddy pool. It’s now open to the public for use.

Then we drove down lower in the park and visited the McHargue’s Mill with dozens and dozens of millstones along the concrete pathway to the mill. That facility had, many years ago, been relocated from Robinson Creek of the Little Laurel River 10 miles north of the current site.

We also visited the nearby museum and reconstructed pioneer village but both were closed on the day we were there.

Our next stop was briefly at a Dollar General Store and then on south along Highway 25 to Corbin. Just beyond the Highway 25E and 25W split, there is the Col. Harland Sanders site, a modern restaurant with a museum that was closed except for drive-through service. The complex has Pure gasoline pumps from the period, lots of parking and signs and historic markers, and seemed very welcoming. One large sign as you turn into the parking lot there touts: “Corbin, It all began here.”

In fact, the Colonel, as much a “Kentucky Colonel” as I and thousands of others are, made the most of the designation and dressed in the style of old-time plantation owners.

When I interviewed him years ago he had sold his restaurants to former Kentucky Governor John Y. Brown and was obligated to continue touring the restaurants as part of the purchase deal. Sanders that morning was disheveled and looked like he was hungover. I sympathize with anyone having to keep a grinding schedule and move about the country to make appearances. I asked him if he remembered my step-grandfather, Dr. Arthur Steely of Williamsburg. He confirmed he had known him. Doc Steely once said he had invested in one of the Sanders projects which failed.

There’s a rumor that the KFC corporation hired someone to portray Sanders during restaurant visits and other events. Sanders died in 1980 and the Henryville, Indiana, native turned Kentuckian is buried in the Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Ky.

It took Harlan Sanders a long time before he hit on his “secret recipe” and that led to his fame and fortune and the creation of KFC. There are more than 24,000 restaurants in 130 countries now, a fact that the town of Corbin boldly celebrates itself as the company’s birthplace.

I remember vacationing in Quebec a few years ago and seeing a KFC restaurant that is called  PFK (‘Poulet Frit Kentucky’ – French for Kentucky Fried Chicken.) The KFC chain has grown now to be an international company all because Sander’s chanced on his recipe in Corbin, Ky.

I’d recommend Levi Jackson Park for camping especially for anyone wanting a more traditional campground. It’s fairly cheap and the sites are large enough for most RVs. There are other things to do and see in the area and London also has a neat town center, a Wellness Park, the Mill Street Park, Veterans Park and Treetop Adventure along Levi Jackson Mill Road.

You can get more information about London and Corbin on the internet or call Levi Jackson Park at (606)330-2130. It’s only about 90 minutes from Knoxville along I-75.

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