Sterling Digital Collections

Sterling, Kansas

History of Sterling

It was on March 13. 1863, that President Abraham Lincoln signed the railroad land-grant bill that would eventually give three million acres of land to then budding Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. With a stroke of his pen the President opened up a whole new section of the Southwest, making possible such pioneer settlements as Sterling and its forerunner the tiny Quaker village Peace.

After 1882 when William Becknell, pioneered the Santa Fe Trail, thousands of travelers crossed Rice County, but few chose to stay. The onus of explorer Stephen Long's view that was "The Great American Desert" was hard to shake.

The Railroad Act of 1862 gave the A.T. and S.F., ten years to extend its track to Colorado , which seemed to be reasonable; but an affair called the Civil War intervened. It was not until 1868 that the first spike was driven in at Topeka. There was no bridge across the Kaw at Topeka-- so the Atchinson to Topeka portion on the road had to come later.

By 1871 the line had reached Newton. In the fall of that year a company was formed in Topeka known as the Agricultural Colony of Kansas. It was the object of this group to locate, somewhere along the new railroad, a community of farmers- "237 miles southwest of Atchinson." The initial exploration trip was made the later part of December 1871. Town of Peace was surveyed on January 15, 1872. A local office of the Town Company was established here with H.P. Ninde as agent. Its headquarters was in a strange building hauled here by wagon from Peabody and located immediately south of the townsite, across the road from what is now Sterling Lake Park. This structure houses a store, hotel and the land office of Mr. Ninde, along with the post office and surveyor's office.

The surveyor's showed little imagination. The townsite was exactly one mile square, Cleveland to Garfield and First Street to Eleventh Street with Broadway. the principal street, located on the half-mile line.

The town was originally called Peace, in deference to Mr. Ninde who was a Quaker. The town, of course, was later called Sterling (1876), but reason for the change is shrouded in mystery. When the county was organized in 1871 there were only six townships and one of them, Sterling, included all the southern part of the county. A tiny settlement on section 32 of what is now East Washington Township, where Cow Creek crosses the Reno County line, was known as Sterling, with a post office there. That "Sterling" and Peace existed at the same time. Four years later, in May of 1876, the proud people of Peace decided that they needed a more progressive name for the fast-growing city and town was incorporated as a third-class city under the name of Sterling.

Looking back, it seems a wonder that the town got underway at all. It was founded in 1872. A nationwide financial panic hit in 1873, and the grasshopper plague followed in 1874. The town developed faster than the countryside. The sod had to be broken and crops planted. For the first two years farmers lived largely on buffalo bones gathered from the prairie and sold for $8 a ton.

It was policy of the railroad to locate a town about every ten miles in order to sell lots and to populate the area with potential passengers and freight customers. Essentially, the entire geography was based on the five-mile-an-hour gait of the horse, a fact which eventually had much to do with the town's future and ultimately its decline.

During the first five years there was much moving around and shuffling of the populace. Atlanta, of course, was doomed to fade as its location on The Trail was no longer of importance. Several of its building were moved to Sterling, as was a large building from Union City, an Ohio colony on Cow Creek south of Lyons. With major additions, became the Green Mountain House, Sterling principal hostelry.

Raymond, which along with Sterling, is the oldest town in the county, bloomed quickly under the illusion of the cattle trade; but faded fast as the Texas cattle trade eventually made its way to Dodge City.

Several Raymond businesses also moved to Peace. Not just the proprietor, but also the buildings. T. C. McGoffin’s Hall became one of the leading institutions here. Church meetings and dances were held in the dame upstairs room.

The first district in the county District No. 1, was organized in the Green Mountain House hotel. The first school house, a frame structure, 25 by 40 feet, was built on what was called College Square, where the present grade school stands. It was replaced in 1878 by a large brick school on the same block. Much later additional grade schools were built on South Broadway and the Adams Street school at Ninth and Adams. A “new” high school followed on North Broadway in 1911. The present school was built in 1954.

Located on the mainline of the Santa Fe, the town grew rapidly and became the principal trading post for a wide area. The "Kinsley cutoff" or "bow-string" of the Santa Fe was not built until 1887, and until then Sterling served as a retail center, particularly for lumber, for the entire area to the south west, including Sylvia and Staford. Lyons did not get a railroad until 1880, with the building of the McPherson-Ellinwood branch.

The year 1876 was a significant one. Peace changed its name and the county held an election to determine the location of a new county seat. Proposed were two sites: Peace and a new town to be called “The Centre” and located in the exact center of the county (later Lyons). When the county was organized in 1871, it included five townships which are now in Reno County—Hayes, Walnut. Medford, Salt Creek, and Grant. With the election pending, politicians at Atlanta persuaded the legislature to give these townships to Reno County (115,200) in order that Peace would be too close to the southern line to be a practical location for the county government. Hence Peace lost to "The Centre" by a vote of 457 to 336.

As in most pioneer towns the original buildings were, for the most part, one-story frame structures with false fronts. Sterling lost some twenty of there in four major fires in the years 1880 to 1882. Three conflagrations were in the block between Main and Monroe on Broadway and one on the east side if Broadway south of Monroe.

The first train in the Santa Fe arrived in Peace at 4:00pm on June 26 of 1872. This was a construction train of about forty cars. On the morning of that day the smoke from the engine could be seen east of town and on the evening of the 27th it camped two miles west of the city. The grade had already been prepared and track was laid at about three miles a day,Later, in western Kansas, as much as ten miles of iron was laid in a day.

Many of the original farmers, removed from Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio, had expected to grow corn here; but it was not to be. Rainfall was sparse. As an experiment they turned sorghums, which led to some unusual local industries. Encouraged by E. Branson Cowgill editor of the Rice County Gazette, they established a molasses mill, a sugar cane mill, and most importantly, a broomcorn industry. Sterling gained national attention as a "Broomcorn Capital" shipping--not carloads--but trainloads of brush to New York. A "dwarf" corn that grew well in the sandy land southwest of town was shipped to Schenectady, New York where it was used in making whisk brooms. (Even the "dwarf" corn was twelve feet tall.)

Another early industry was the Sterling salt plant established in 1888 by Banker T. H. Brown. It was a brine plant that operated until it was sold to Morton in 1929.

From most its first year, the town counted flour milling as a major industry. The town's first merchants, Landis and Hollinger, built the Keystone Mill and Elevator on South Broadway in 1873. This was followed by the International Roller Mill in the 1880's, located near Seventh Street along the railroad tracks. This large mill burned at the turn of the century and the all-concrete Arnold Mill was erected 1922. Arnolds was sold to the Farmers Co-op in 1955, and the mill shut.

Equally important and still so today, was, of course, the establishment of Cooper (Sterling) College by the United Presbyterians in 1887. The venture, promoted by the Sterling Land and Investment Company, was essentially a business move. A group of civic leaders, most of were members of the Congregational Church, offered a 25,000 endowment. The men hoped to recoup their investment by sale of lots in the north end of town. Most lots were never sold; and likewise, the U.P.s never got around to raise most of their $25,000 commitment. But the school opened and survived.

The 1890's were perhaps the town's best years. Built were such structures as the Masonic Temple, the new Methodist Church, the D.J. Fair home, and the Smysser (Zimmerman) home on West Main.

Worthy of mention is the local unit of the Kansas National Guard--Company H, Second Regiment. Established very early, it was frequently called out to help quell county seat fights in Western Kansas, among them the notorious Steven County War at Hugoton. The unit was still operating at the opening of World War II. Instrumental in starting the Guard was Co. J.H. Ricksecker, its commander, who was a local hotel owner and land agent. He went on from Sterling to be come commander of the entire Kansas Guard.

Sterling escaped some of the trauma of the 1930's Depression by the discovery here of oil in 1928. There has been exploration and production in the area continuously since that time.

Sterling for a time gained statewide recognition as a medical center through the Trueheart Clinic and its pioneer work in the treatment of skin cancer. Dr P.P. Trueheart and his son, Marion, were the first in the Midwest to use X-ray and radium for this purpose. The first hospital was opened in 1902 and new facilities built in 1909 and again in 1953. The final hospital closed in 1976.

School unification in the 1960's resulted in a strong local school school system with a substantial tax base.

Sterling's population has remained strangely static. For 120 of its 140 years it has always been around near or just above the 2,000 mark.

No question, Sterling, along with other small but idyllic oases of The American Heartland, isolated from social ills of a thousand Gothams, remains a pleasant place to live. "A good place to raise children" But in a larger sense, in facing up to economic and political forces which are fanned by the winds of change, can rural America survive the urban domination of the 21st century?

Written By Max Moxley For the book "Rice County History... Then and Now"