The county seat (1884, 3,935 feet) was founded as an agricultural colony in 1873 and incorporated eleven years later. The first irrigation ditch and the post office arrived in 1874, when the town was laid out by a railroad official who named it for his hometown in Illinois. Sterling moved three miles south to its present location in 1887, when the Union Pacific Railroad agreed to make this its division point on the line to Denver. The original street grid parallels the diagonal tracks; later additions to the town are compass-oriented.
When the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad also came to Sterling, the town's role as a major trading center for northeastern Colorado and the hub of the Julesburg-Denver Basin was confirmed. Sterling also attracted business with one of the first rail bridges over the South Platte. A sugar beet factory (1905) fueled further growth. It attracted Germans from Russia (Russian immigrants of German descent), who lived in small frame houses, such as the one at 530 Washington Street. The industrial northside “Russian Town” also houses the large Sterling Beef Company packing plant (1966) and other industries.
Since the 1980s Sterling has become noted for its tree stump sculpture. Bradford H. Rhea started the fad by carving many fanciful subjects from dead trees, including Sky Grazers (1984), consisting of five giraffes formed from a multitrunk tree in Columbine Park on 3rd Street. Such public art has further enhanced a tidy and progressive city. Sterling's most memorable modern building, the Memorial Auditorium (1932), an expressionist Art Deco design by Denver architect Temple Hoyne Buell, burned in the 1970s. A splendid auto showroom, Bill's General Motors Dealership, catercorner from the courthouse, is a poly-chromatic and plate glass monument to the 1920s, still in Cadillac condition. One of Sterling's many fine early twentieth-century homes, the 1912 four-square built by banker John Lutin at 516 South Division Street, has been converted to the Crest House Bed and Breakfast.
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