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Nebraska...Our Towns

Sterling -- Johnson County

John Bentz chose this location, along the Nebraska City-Beatrice trail, in 1857, and later platted a town and established a saw mill. While early saw mills used water power to make lumber, the buzz-saws of the 1900s used steam or gas-powered engines. [Nebraska State Historical Society]

The first pioneer in this area is thought to be John Bentz from Ohio. He arrived with his wife, Rachael, and six children in 1857 and built a dugout into the side of the hill in section 26. Soon after Bentz, a very religious man, opened his home for church services, he needed to added a "lean-to" with a grass roof. There was "standing room only" since everyone attended church in those days.

The first post office was called "Brysonville." Mail, carried by a Mr. Bryson on the overland trail from Nebraska City to Beatrice, was left at the Bentz home. When the first Methodist Conference was held and a circuit was formed, the parishioners decided to "choose a better name." They decided to call it "Weston," since it was "the most western location." Since this name (already is use) was not accepted by the post office, the name, "Bryson," was used until 1870.

Many settlers had built homes in this area by the late 1860s. Again the people felt that the post office should have "a better name," and proposed that the choice be determined by a lottery. The winner, William Mann, named it for his home in Illinois, "Sterling." The post office address was officially changed on March 16, 1870.

It was the first survey of the Atchison & Nebraska Railroad in 1870 that set our town at its present location. When the plans were announced, William Mann and John Bentz platted a town site and deeded 40-acres to the railroad in the hope of securing a depot. History records, "...the idea [for this town] was a good one, and soon settlers began taking up land and building shops." Mann put a dam across the Nemaha River and built a three-stone grist mill. The Bentz saw mill, built nearby, is thought to have been a separate business, but the records are not clear on this point.

Shortly after the dam was built, a $600 bridge was constructed, which became known as "Mill Road." This is still one of the main roads out of town.

Charles and Martha Tripp, who came from Watertown, New York, at the invitation of Mann, were the first store owners in Sterling. The Tripp store was held in high regard. When the railroad was being built, the store was the "headquarters" for the crew. It is noted that a cowbell hung over the front door, announcing a customer's entrance, night or day. They were greeted by "Mike," the old coach dog, until Charlie emerged from the back of the building where he lived.

The first schoolhouse was located in the north part of town. The second one, made of sod, was south of town and around the bend on Mill Road, but it was in session only for a few weeks "during the milder weather." Church services were held there on Sundays. The next schoolhouse was built on the hill, but a tornado blew it away. Then a two-story frame structure was used until a brick building was erected in 1890. This was replaced in 1917 by the present building. The Sterling school district currently provides classes for nearly 250 students, K-12.

The first church was 18 by 24 feet, built by the Methodists in 1873. There have been several others constructed over the years with the present building dedicated on May 12, 1912. Through the years other Sterling churches included a Baptist, a Christian, a Presbyterian, and a Lutheran congregation. Today, only the Methodist and Lutheran remain.

The highest population for Sterling was recorded in 1920 with a total of 804. As Johnson County's second largest city, the present population stands at 526. In addition to a nucleus of businesses on main street, the Burlington Northern freight service is available, and Highway 41 serves the community with an all-weather road.

From Johnson County material found at the NSHS; History of Nebraska, by Andreas; and Nebraska Place Names, by Elton A. Perkey.