Sterling is the county seat of Logan County in northeastern Colorado. Founded by homesteaders along the South Platte River in 1881, Sterling quickly developed into a commercial hub on Colorado’s eastern plains. Although it has been through its share of booms and busts, the town continues to serve as a regional economic hub. Today it has a population of 14,104, making it the most populous city in eastern Colorado.
In the early nineteenth century, the nomadic Cheyenne and Arapaho people camped in the South Platte River bottoms near present-day Sterling. In the late 1860s, after protracted conflict with white immigrants and the US military, Native Americans were forced out of eastern Colorado. The first white resident in the Sterling area is believed to be Englishman William Shaw Hadfield, who built a home on an island in the South Platte in 1871. That same year, railroad surveyor David Leavitt, a native of Sterling, Illinois, passed through what would become Logan County and was impressed with the South Platte Valley’s agricultural potential. He was not the only one; by the mid-1870s, rancher John Wesley Iliff was grazing thousands of cattle in the area.
In 1873 a group of southern families traveled west hoping to join the Union Colony (present-day Greeley). When they reached the colony, they found the best land already claimed, so they traveled east to the South Platte Valley. There, the King, Perkins, Prewitt, and two Smith families, as well as a handful of other single men, formed the first group of homesteads near present-day Sterling. Leavitt joined them and named the settlement Sterling, after his hometown.
The first irrigation ditches around Sterling were dug in 1872–73, but by the time Colorado became a state in 1876, the Sterling area was still little more than a cluster of homesteads.
In 1880 Sterling homesteader Minos C. King traveled to Nebraska and offered Union Pacific Railroad (UP) officials an eighty-acre right-of-way if the UP promised to build a depot and roundhouse in the Sterling area. The officials agreed. Some accounts credit King for platting the town, others say it was Leavitt; regardless, Sterling was officially platted in September 1881. The town was laid out along a northeast-southwest axis, parallel to the railroad tracks and South Platte. Later that year, King and Richard E. Smith established the first business, a lumberyard and hardware store, at the corner of Front and Main Streets. Over the course of the next year, eight more businesses opened, including a dry goods store and market, two general merchandise stores, a blacksmith, a restaurant, and a stationery and tobacco store.
Sterling incorporated in December 1884, and became the county seat of the newly formed Logan County in 1887. The first county courthouse went up at Third and Main Streets. George Adam Henderson arrived in Sterling in 1887 and opened a hardware store on Main Street; he made a brisk business selling to local farmers and ranchers, and soon expanded to selling wagons, buggies, larger agricultural implements, and lumber. Henderson would go on to found the First National Bank of Sterling in 1901 and operate a large set of commercial buildings at 118–120 Main Street, known as the “Henderson Block.”
By the 1890s, Sterling had a population of about 540. Main Street was home to dozens of businesses, including groceries, hotels, restaurants, saloons, tailors, and barbershops. Buildings that went up during this time included Headrick’s Jewelry at 103–105 Main, the New Way Shoe Store at 111 Main, the Morgan Cigar Store at 206 Main, the Rominger Jewelry Store at 208 Main, and Waymire Clothing at 210 Main.
Sugar Beet Boom
In 1905 the Sterling Sugar Company built a beet-processing factory just across the railroad tracks from Front Street and the town’s commercial center. The Great Western Sugar Company bought the plant the next year, and Sterling began its long tenure as a regional center of the sugar beet industry in northeast Colorado.
The influx of wealth and people that accompanied the sugar beet boom transformed Sterling. The town’s population nearly tripled between 1900 and 1910, rising to 3,044. The Logan County courthouse was suddenly too small to handle all the county business, so a new one was built in 1909–10. In 1909 Augustus Sherwin and F. W. Reinke established the Farmers National Bank at 220 Main Street to service local sugar beet farmers. With so many new farms being established, George Henderson’s already successful agricultural implement business exploded, and he opened a new store and warehouse at 122 N. Second Street in 1910. To better serve the growing number of new residents and businesses, a new city hall building went up at 214 Poplar Street in 1912.
More hotels were needed to accommodate the coming and going of businesspeople. Sterling already had the Central Hotel, built in 1904 at 209–211 Main Street. In 1915 it was joined by the Cole and Albany Hotels on Main and Third Streets, respectively. Later, the Oxford Hotel went up on Second Street in 1922, and the Sterling Hotel was built on the same street in 1927.
As automobiles became more essential to travel and agriculture in the early twentieth century, Sterling’s business community responded. Palmer’s Garage (1919), Marsau’s Auto Parts (1925), and the McLain Chevrolet dealership (1926) helped service and sell the new machines. In 1926 Lee Stickney built a new two-story edifice at 101 Main Street that housed both a motorcycle repair shop and a tire business. Stickney’s tire business grew into one of the largest in the region, servicing cars and trucks from other towns in northeast Colorado as well as Nebraska and Wyoming.
The surrounding beet farms continued to bring prosperity to Sterling throughout the twentieth century, providing revenue for not only municipal structures such as the local library—established in 1918—but also arts and cultural establishments, such as the Fox Theatre, which went up in 1938.
Depression and War
The sugar beet industry helped Sterling weather the Great Depression of the 1930s. Although Great Western lost money during 1931–32, it was profitable in other years and remained the third-highest contributor to the Logan County tax roll, behind the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, and Union Pacific railroads. While many towns on Colorado’s plains shrank during the Depression, Sterling’s population grew by 3 percent from 1930 to 1940.
When the United States entered World War II in late 1941, Sterling’s population stood around 7,400. Ultimately, 2,380 men from Logan County, including many from Sterling, served in the war, and seventy died. More than sixty years later, some three dozen veterans of the conflict told their stories to Sterling resident John Elliff, who published a book about the town’s World War II experience in 2012. In 1945 the Sterling sugar beet factory’s dormitory housed German prisoners of war, who were dispatched from the US Army’s Camp Carson to work the beet fields in Logan County.
Tides of the Late Twentieth Century
In Sterling, as in much of northeast Colorado, the latter half of the twentieth century was marked by ebbs and flows—of the economy and of the South Platte River. For example, sugar made from Colorado beets began to face stiffer competition from the global market, and the industry would not survive the century. In response, Logan County farmers began planting more corn, and oil development in the 1950s brought a new source of revenue to Sterling. But that industry petered out, too, brought down by a glut in the worldwide oil market during the mid-1980s.
Meanwhile, the devastating South Platte flood of 1965 sent nearly three feet of water surging through town, damaging about two dozen bridges in Sterling and forcing residents to deploy some 1,200 sandbags to ward off the flood waters. It would not be the only major flood to hit Sterling before century’s end.
Despite Great Western’s struggle to remain profitable in the face of cheaper imported sugar, Sterling’s sugar beet factory proved to be one of the company’s most efficient and productive plants through the 1960s and 1970s. In the mid-1980s, after a spurt of layoffs, shortened work weeks, and tense relations with local growers, Great Western finally declared bankruptcy. The Sterling sugar beet factory closed in 1985.
Although its processing days were done, the sugar factory was not vacant for long; in 1987, Great Western sold the building, along with 327 acres of land and water rights, to Lee and Marlene Roth. In 1994 the new Western Sugar Company, which purchased much of the former Great Western Company’s property, bought just over a dozen acres of storage space at the Sterling factory, including silos, a warehouse, and beet dumping grounds.
Bereft of the sugar beet and oil industries, Sterling’s economy entered a slump, even as it diversified. In 1993 Sykes Enterprises, a business technology supplier, opened a $5.5 million facility in Sterling. By the next year it employed about 100 people, shoring up an economy that was still one of the region’s most vibrant but had clearly seen better days.
Two events in 1997 compounded Sterling’s struggles in that decade. First, the South Platte flooded on July 29–30, causing nearly $10 million in damage within the city limits. No one was killed, but more than 100 residents had to take shelter at Sterling High School as two and a half feet of water sloshed the downtown district. Then, in November 1997, the Excel Beef Company closed its Sterling plant permanently, leaving 335 people unemployed.
However, as it had done many other times, the Sterling economy rebounded around a new industry; this time it was not sugar beets or oil, but prisoners that jump-started local commerce. In May 1999, the state built Colorado’s largest maximum-security prison—the 2,445-bed Sterling Correctional Facility—just outside city limits. Some former beef plant workers found jobs as prison guards. Sterling’s population increased by 30 percent over the next decade, going from 11,360 in 2000 to 14,777 in 2010.
Downtown Historic District
In 2013 the Downtown Sterling Historic District, which encompasses much of the town’s historic commercial center between Front and Fourth Streets, was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Backers of the listing hoped that it would bring renewed attention and investment to Sterling’s downtown. The district includes eighty-eight buildings, most of them brick edifices built between 1910 and 1939. Of the many renovation projects that helped secure the district’s listing on the National Register, the Logan County Courthouse project was the largest; between 2000 and 2012, the county secured more than $1.5 million in grants from the State Historical Fund to rehabilitate the courthouse, located in the heart of the district at Third and Main Streets.
The downtown historic district also includes a series of bronze sculptures that commemorate the city’s heritage and contributions to Colorado, including statues of cowboys, Native Americans, and William Hadfield, the area’s first white resident. As part of its remodeling, the downtown district is also receiving new sidewalks, gutters, and landscaping.
Today, Sterling continues to serve as the commercial hub of northeast Colorado, the Nebraska panhandle, and southeast Wyoming. In addition to the prison, major employers include Banner Health, which employs 289, and Northeastern Junior College, which enrolls more than 1,600 students and employs 231.
Redevelopment continues in downtown Sterling, aided by the recent creation of the historic district. In 2015–16 Sterling saw a net gain in downtown businesses. In 2015 local business owners Alan and Cindy Hoal bought the historic Woolworth building at Third and Main Streets, which had sat vacant for more than thirty years. After performing cleanup and repairs, the couple donated the building to the Logan County Economic Development Corporation (LCEDC). In May 2016, the LCEDC received a $15,000 grant from the State Historical Fund to conduct a historic structure assessment of the Woolworth building, which developers seek to convert into a community arts center.