Alan Bellows informs us that one American advertising icon had a lot more interesting personal history than anyone would have supposed.
The seventh of May 1931 was a hot, dusty day in the mountain town of Corbin, Kentucky. Alongside a dirt road, a service station manager named Matt Stewart stood on a ladder painting a cement railroad wall. His application of a fresh coat of paint was gradually obscuring the sign that had been painted there previously. Stewart paused when he heard an automobile approaching at high speedâ€”or what counted for high speed in 1931.
It was coming from the northâ€”from the swath of backcountry known among locals as â€œHellâ€™s Half-Acre.â€ The area was so named for its primary exports: bootleg booze, bullets, and bodies. The neighborhood was also commonly referred to as â€œthe asshole of creation.â€
Stewart probably squinted through the dust at the approaching car, and he probably wiped sweat from his brow with the back of a paint-flecked wrist. He probably knew that the driver would be armed, angry, and about to skid to a stop nearby. Stewart set down his paint brush and picked up his pistol. The car skidded to a stop nearby. But it was not an armed man that emergedâ€”it was three armed men. â€œWell, you son of a bitch!â€ the driver shouted at the painter, â€œI see you done it again.â€ The driver of the car had been using this particular railroad wall to advertise his service station in town, and this was not the first time that the painterâ€”the manager of a competing stationâ€”had installed an ad blocker.
Stewart leapt from his ladder, firing his pistol wildly as he dove for cover behind the railroad wall. One of the driverâ€™s two companions collapsed to the ground. The driver picked up his fallen comradeâ€™s pistol and returned fire. Amid a hail of bullets from his pair of adversaries, the painter finally shouted, â€œDonâ€™t shoot, Sanders! Youâ€™ve killed me!â€ The dusty roadside shootout fell silent, and indeed the former painter was bleeding from his shoulder and hip. But he would live, unlike the Shell Oil executive lying nearby with a bullet wound to the chest.
This encounter might have been as commonplace as any other gunfight around Hellâ€™s Half-Acre were it not for the identity of the driver. The â€œSandersâ€ who put two bullets in Matt Stewart was none other than Harland Sanders, the man who would go on to become the world-famous Colonel Sanders. He was dark-haired and clean-shaven at the time, but his future likeness would one day appear on Kentucky Fried Chicken billboards, buildings, and buckets worldwide.