“The area was named for W. S. Sterling, a buffalo hunter, rancher, and Indian fighter who may have been the first permanent settler in the area. Sterling County covers 914 square miles of the central prairie, is surrounded by hills, and drains to the North Concho River and its tributaries-Sterling, Ross, and Crystal creeks.”
“In the early 1980s the agricultural sector of the county’s economy earned an average annual income of $7.5 million, nearly all of which was derived from beef cattle, sheep, and goats; crops such as wheat, barley, hay, and pecans were also grown in Sterling County. There is no manufacturing in the area, but oil and gas production are important to the local economy.”
“In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the hunting grounds around the North Concho were used by Comanches, Lipans, Kiowas, and Kickapoos, all of whom maintained the rich material culture of plains tribes. The region was within a land grant made by Sam Houston in 1842 to Henry F. Fisher and Burchard Miller, but apparently no settlement in what is now Sterling County resulted.”
“As elsewhere in the region settlement began after the Civil War, when the United States Army pushed the Indians to the west, and the buffalo herds were destroyed. Among the earliest settlers in the area were W. S. Sterling and S. J. Wiley, both buffalo hunters. According to legend, Frank and Jesse James hid out on Sterling Creek in the 1870s to raise horses and hunt buffalo. Fort Concho (first called Camp Hatch, then Camp Kelly) was established by the United States Army in 1867. Camp Elizabeth, an outpost of Fort Concho near the site of present Sterling City, protected ranchers who moved into the area during the 1870s.”
“In early days cattle were driven to Colorado City and occasionally as far as Fort Worth. Despite the importance of ranching for the early settlement of the area, the huge ranches lasted in what is now Sterling County only until the mid-1880s. By that time, homesteaders were competing with ranchers for land.”
‘The land use patterns of West Texas were revolutionized by state homestead laws, which helped settlers challenge ranchers use of large spreads of public lands. School and railroad land was available at one to three dollars an acre, and a buyer could acquire as many as seven sections. Some ranchers resisted the movements and claims of homesteaders, but their resistance was short-lived. The drought of 1883 precipitated the fence-cutting wars, a particularly violent phase of this change in land use.”
“Fence cutters sometimes failed to distinguish between ranchers who enclosed their own lands with barbed wire and those who enclosed public lands within their legitimately held lands. Statewide, there were three killings associated with fence cutting; property damages amounted to $20 million in 1883, leading to state legislation the next year prohibiting both fence cutting and the enclosure of public lands. The arrival of homesteaders in Sterling County precipitated the breakup of some of the great free-range ranches; the drought of 1886–87, which bankrupted the Half Circle S [Ranch], helped to hasten their demise. Camp Elizabeth was abandoned in 1886.”
“When the county was established and organized in 1891 from Tom Green County, it already included eight or ten small communities, several of which had post offices and schools. A spirited contest between Sterling City and Commins (Cummins) for the county seat was fueled by the local newspapers, the Sterling Courier and the NorthConcho News. When the county’s voters chose Sterling City as the county seat, Cummins did not survive.”
“As the 1890s progressed populism became a contentious issue in county politics; according to one source, the population was almost evenly divided between Populists and Democrats. In spite of their divisions on other issues, however, the voters could agree on the necessity to prohibit the sale of liquor in the area; in 1898 the county was voted dry.”
“By 1900 there were eighty-six farms and ranches, encompassing 425,655 acres, in Sterling County, and 1,127 people lived there. Though small areas in the county were beginning to be cultivated, stock ranching dominated the local economy. Only 3,129 acres in the county was classified as “improved” that year. Meanwhile, 17,000 cattle grazed on county pastures. Sheep, introduced to the area about 1890, numbered 1,400 by 1900. Initial farming efforts were limited to growing sorghums, oats, and cane for livestock feed; there was also a little truck farming to satisfy local needs. Cotton was first planted in 1889, and Sterling City opened its first gin in 1895; others were established later.”
“Though farmers found the area generally inhospitable to cultivated crops, ranching continued to expand in the county. The number of sheep grew to 59,000 by 1920 and to 118,000 by 1930; the number of cattle also grew, and in 1930 the agricultural census reported 25,000 head in the area. Sterling County experienced a brief boom when the number of farms and ranches in the area increased from 131 in 1920 to 176 by 1925. By 1930 the number had tapered off to 136 farms and ranches, almost exactly the same number as had existed in the county twenty years before.”
“The population of the county nevertheless rose by 30 percent during the 1920s, reaching 1,431 by 1930. By this time, most of the county’s early communities were fading away, and the population was increasingly centered in Sterling City. The county’s economy declined during the Great Depression of the 1930s. While the number of sheep in the area increased to 147,000 by 1940, the number of cattle declined by 50 percent during the 1930s, dropping to 11,000 by 1940; meanwhile, the number of farms and ranches in the area also declined significantly. By 1940 there were only 117 agricultural holdings in the area, and the population of the county had declined to 1,404.”
“Oil was discovered in Sterling County in 1947 and helped to bail out the area’s declining economy. Petroleum production in the county rose from 17,309 barrels in 1948 to 861,000 barrels in 1956, to 920,00 barrels in 1960, and to 1,946,000 barrels in 1965.”
“By the early 1980s there were only two communities in the county. Sterling City (population, 984) is the county’s seat of government and the area’s trade center; the other community is Broome.”
Handbook of Texas Online, John Leffler, “Sterling County“
I was the guest of Sterling City and Sterling County on July 5, 2015.
Sterling County Courthouse – 1938
(Photo Courtesy: TxDOT)
The building that stands in Sterling City today is the third courthouse in the county’s history. The first, built in 1891, was designed by Oscar and F.E. Ruffini of Austin. Their presumably notable design was converted into a hotel in 1905. That same year, the courthouse was succeeded by a courthouse similar in design to the works of John Rely Gordon. It’s not clear if he was involved in Sterling County, but the building’s curved, corner entrances do much to echo him. If this design was his, it would be the farthest west he ever went. At any rate, its contractor was a W.M. Martin.
Next came the Great Depression and the year 1938. The courthouse built then, whoever its architect had been, met a disastrous fate in favor of a more modern structure. David S. Castle subsequently swept into Sterling County and added one more courthouse to his resume. Templeton & Cannon, in partnership with the Works Progress Administration, brought this Art Deco structure to life. It has served Sterling County ever since.
The Sterling County Courthouse sits just off the highway, facing north on 4th Street / US-87.
Built during the height of the 1930s, the courthouse is crawling with Art Deco elements.
This side of the Sterling City square is sparsely populated.
The southwest corner
Sterling City & Sterling County
Every Texas town big or small, or east or west, just wouldn’t be complete without that DQ sign.
At the corner of 4th and Elm
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Next Courthouse: Glasscock County