The Background of Sterling City:
The Indians once lived in this area, but the first white man to settle for any length of time on Sterling soil was Captain W.S. Sterling, for whom the area was named. Sometime in the 1860's, W.S. Sterling lived on a creek located in what is now known as Sterling County. Captain Sterling was a buffalo hunter, rancher, and Indian fighter. The Fort Worth Gazette in its Semi-Centennial Edition in 1893 stated that Captain Sterling was an old frontiersman without fear and was distinguished for his unselfish devotion to the cause of justice and humanity. The Indians feared him for his cool courage and the deadly crack of his Winchester. After years of intense hunting of buffalo in this area, the herds were diminishing. Therefore, Captain Sterling left to serve as a United States Marshal in Arizona. There he was ambushed and slain by Apache Indians near Fort Apache, Arizona.
With the thinning buffalo herds, the lush grasslands were more available to cattle barons. Attracted by the free grass and open range, these pioneers moved in with vast herds. The establishment of the line of forts, of which included Fort Concho, furnished cattlemen the protection from the Indian and made the ranches in the wild part of Texas possible. This era of the cattle kings was short, lasting approximately from 1870 to the middle 1880's. The settlers were coming in to share the land with the cattlemen, to farm the land to a limited degree, and to make homes for themselves and their children. The big ranchers tried to keep the settlers out but finally had to either accept them or move on to the less settled regions.
With the coming of the settlers, Sterling City was established. The town site of Sterling City was donated in January 1891 by R.C. Stewart, and surveyed and plotted in February by H.B. Tarver. At this time, only the three towns of Montvale, Cummins, and Sterling City had existed along the Concho River in the area now known as Sterling County.
The existence of Sterling City was influenced by the creation of Sterling County and the determination of the location of the county seat. The land now classified as Sterling County was once a part of Tom Green County. Since transportation consisted of horse drawn buggies and wagons, trips to the Tom Green county seat of San Angelo became an ordeal. The organization of a new county seemed necessary. Early in 1891, a number of citizens met in Cummins to draw up a petition, asking the legislature to designate an area for a new county. On March 4, 1891, the Texas Legislature created Sterling County out of the territory of Tom Green County. The newly created county was to pay her pro rata share of existing debts and liabilities of Tom Green County. On April 10, 1891, a petition signed by 150 Sterling citizens requesting permission to be organized into a county, was heard in the Tom Green County Commissioner's Court. The court granted the petition and ordered that an election be held on May 20, 1891 to elect county officers and to determine the location of the Sterling County seat.
At the same time, businesses were being established at Sterling City. Some of these had existed previously at Montvale, about 3 miles from Sterling City. By June 11, 1891, about twenty families had moved into Sterling City, and the business houses consisted of one hotel, one restaurant, one dry goods and grocery store, one meat market, one feed stable, and one barber shop. There was also a lawyer, a land agency, and a newspaper, the Sterling City Courier. By July 1, 1891, the population was estimated to be one hundred.
As Sterling City's population was growing, Montvale's population was diminishing. Part of the population of Montvale had moved to Cummins before Sterling City was started, and by the summer of 1891, most of the business houses of Montvale had moved out. The editor of the Sterling Courier on June 11, 1891, had mentioned that Sterling County contained two small towns, Sterling City and Cummins. With the disappearance of the city of Montvale, Cummins and Sterling City were now the only towns in contention for the county seat.
The towns of Cummins and Sterling City both desired to become the county seat of the newly formed county. In a few issues before the election of the county seat location, the editor of the North Concho News encouraged Cummins as the county seat and listed the disadvantages of having Sterling City as the county seat. He stated that Cummins was two miles nearer the center of the county, that the title to the land which Sterling City was located on was not clear, that Cummins had better natural drainage and Sterling City was likely to be boggy and infested with mosquitoes. The editor also stated that a dam, mill, and gin were under contract at Cummins. The people of Sterling City fought back by having a circular printed and distributed to advertise the advantages of Sterling City as the county seat.
The election to determine the county seat was held on May 20, 1891. Sterling City received 94 votes and Cummins received 98 votes. An official count was made on May 25, and it was determined that some irregular voting had taken place. One box was thrown out because it had no poll list, and two others were thrown out because they had no instructions to judges. Now, both Cummins and Sterling City each had 61 votes for the county seat. Therefore, a second election was scheduled for July 7, 1891. Governor Hogg selected Soulard's Ranch house as the temporary county seat.
During the month of June, each town campaigned for the county seat. Both towns even donated a lot to anyone who would improve it before the election. The editors of the North Concho News at Cummins and the Sterling Courier at Sterling City engaged in a bitter battle over the disadvantages of the opposing town as the county seat. They argued over such things as the scenery, water supply, drainage, and elevation. They even argued over the depth to which a wagon wheel would cut into the mud of the opposing town.
The editors were able to forget their editorial warfare and on July 4, 1891, just three days before the election, the city of Cummins held a barbecue. After the barbecue was served, both newspaper editors spoke to the crowd on the advantages of their prospective towns for the county seat. The Sterling City editor complimented the Cummins people on the way the barbecue was handled.
On July 7, 1891, the second election to determine the county seat was held. Sterling City received 116 votes and Cummins received 103 votes. Sterling City was now the county seat of Sterling County.
Within a few weeks of the election, businesses located in Cummins began to move to Sterling City. By August 6, the Concho Town Company, which had been boosting Cummins for the county seat, moved to Sterling City. In September, the Sterling Courier bought the North Concho News. The population of Sterling City had increased from about 100 to 300 in September, and by the end of the year, very little was left of Cummins. Cummins disappeared almost entirely within the following year or so. Sterling City was now the only town existing in Sterling County.
EARLY POST OFFICES:
On October 20, 1891, the post office at Montvale was moved to Sterling City by the postmaster. The Sterling City post office has been operating since December 1, 1891. In those days, the mail was brought to each of the post offices only once or twice a week from Colorado City and San Angelo, and later more often. Although there was once fourteen other post offices in Sterling County, the Sterling City post office is the only one to continue to exist at the present time.
EARLY SCHOOL HOUSES:
During the fall of 1891, money was raised in Sterling City to build a school house. The money was raised by popular subscription and by a social function known as a "ball and supper". With a "ball and supper", boxes containing things to eat would be brought by the ladies and then sold to the highest bidder, with a dance held after supper. Fifty dollars was collected at the first and forty-one at another. The first school in Sterling City was then built by 1892. The early schools had one teacher in a one-room building with a variation of student ages. The length of the school term also varied and depended upon the amount of money available - the school ran as long as the money lasted.
There were 16 schools in Sterling County. After a few years, Sterling City became the center of educational activity of the county. This may have been due to the following reasons: first, as soon as many of the settlers became well established in the ranching industry they moved into Sterling City and built homes here; second, the introduction of the automobile in about 1907; third, many people moved into town to give their children the advantages of a larger school; and fourth, the education system was changed to the County Unit System. This meant that the schools of the county were financed and managed on the county unit basis, and the superintendent of Sterling City Schools became the superintendent of all the schools in the county. Therefore, within a period of 4 to 5 years, most of the county's school children were attending school at Sterling City. In 1923, a brick school building was erected at Sterling City, and in 1938, a gymnasium was built.
The first church organized within the county was a Methodist Church at Montvale in the middle 1880's. The first pastor was a circuit rider and worked out of San Angelo. Before the Montvale church was organized, a preacher would come in occasionally and hold services, and sometimes hold meetings in the summer. By June 1891, four churches had been organized in the county. These early churches were served by circuit riders, and services were held on one Sunday of each month, with the people going to a Union Sunday School at Sterling City on the other Sundays. The first church house to be built in Sterling City was built by the Methodist in 1896 and was shared with the Baptists for several years. Both of these denominations had been using the school house prior to this time. The Baptist Church was built in 1899. The Presbyterians organized a church at Sterling City in August 1898. They used the Methodist Church house until 1918 when they built their own building. In 1899, the Church of Christ was organized in Sterling City and later erected a building around 1905.
Although a railroad for Sterling City was discussed in 1891, a meeting was not held in Sterling City until 1905 to consider granting a bonus and right of way. Finally, in 1910, the Santa Fe, under the name of Concho, Llano, and San Saba Railroad Company, finished the road from San Angelo to Sterling City. When it was completed, everyone got a free ride to San Angelo. The railroad was later discontinued, but the Sterling City Railroad Depot still stands, and has been renovated by the Sterling County Senior Citizens.
The first telephones in Sterling County were neighborhood telephones and lines were supported on pasture fences. In 1897, the Rust Brothers of San Angelo offered to put in a telephone line from San Angelo to Sterling City if the people raised a certain amount of money. They did and the line was completed later that year. Electricity came in 1927 and the highway through the county was paved in 1930.
EARLY OIL AND GAS DISCOVERIES:
The early settlers of the area came to this area for good grassland, and the livestock industry was foremost which is what Sterling's economy was built on. In the 1920's, oil companies sent geologists to do some leasing and shallow tests, which resulted in small amounts of oil. However, most of the old timers felt that there was oil here. In the summer of 1947, an oil company leased a large block of leases to the north and west of town to try for deep production or testing and began drilling that summer. In August 1947, the Georgia Frost well was cased and deepened to 25 feet and the well began flowing. This caused much excitement in Sterling City and royalty buyers were active in the county. No real oil pays were found in 1947, but lessors, royalty buyers and wildcatters all were busy trying to get production or leases. In 1948, oil was found south of Sterling City so now the oil fever was centered to the south. Many companies, drillers and wildcatters drilled test in every section of the county. Production all over the county grew steadily and each year, more and more oil was being produced in Sterling. Drilling for natural gas has also become popular in the county as gas prices have risen.
Sterling City was incorporated in August 1955 and in September 1955, city officials to include a mayor and five councilmen, were elected by popular vote.
The above information was condensed by Carmen Barber and taken from Milling Around Sterling County, Staked Plains Press, Inc., Canyon, Texas 79015. Edited by Beverly Daniels, Lubbock, Texas. Sterling County Historical Commission, 1976.