The Murals

20 Years….seems like forever, yet not so long ago, that blank canvases of brick came to life to tell the story of Sterling, Illinois – its earliest settlers, scenes from its past, important moments in history that make Sterling the great community it is today.

Now under the umbrella of Sterling Main Street, the Sterling Mural Society marked a significant milestone in 2015 – 20 years of murals decorating our downtown.  A 20th Mural, “Lincoln in Sterling,” was installed to mark the occasion.

Fundraising activities are ongoing for mural maintenance funds. Donations to the Sterling Mural Society may be mailed in care of Sterling Main Street, P.O. Box 261, Sterling, Illinois.   For more information please contact Sterling Main Street at 815-626-8610.

It really was an exciting time back in 1995, the start of a dream to enhance our fair city by creating big, bold, beautiful historical murals.  Our intent then, which continues today, is to see to completion such projects through public donations, without any tax dollars being spent.

The Sterling Mural Society has chosen some great subjects to depict our history.  A lot of study and research went into each mural selection and final matching of subject with the best location in the downtown area.

These murals proudly reflect our past, one that silently proclaims to local citizens and visitors alike – “Visit us, enjoy us, be a part of us.”

As Sterling continues to reinvent itself for the future, citizens new and old can be proud of this past and use it as a base for continued growth and accomplishment.

John M. Dillon
November 1, 2006

CLICK HERE FOR AN ONLINE STORY MAP SHOWING THE LOCATIONS OF EACH OF THE MURALS FOR A SELF-GUIDED TOUR.

Murals listed below in order of installation.
Photos courtesy of Linnea Koch Photography


Old Downtown (1995) by Dan and Peter Sawatzky

Mural Location:  200 Block of First Avenue (West Wall of Courthouse)

Depicts East Third and Locust Streets, ca. 1907

While not exactly the center of town, this intersection was one of the busiest corners in Sterling in 1907.  The Martin Building, restored by Sterling Main Street in 2010 and now the home of The Rusty Fox Wine and Alehouse, is on the corner at the right; it housed the offices of the Martin Brothers – David L. and John W. – who did much to further the growth of Sterling and Rock Falls, Illinois.

The Sterling Dixon and Eastern Electric Railway ran its tracks down the middle of Third Street stopping often to pick up or discharge passengers.

The large imposing structure at the far left end of the block on Locust Street was built by Thomas Galt and George Tracy in 1877; it housed many stores, a reading room and library, offices and the much used cultural center, the Academy of Music. The adjacent building was erected by John Farwell, a dry goods merchant, prior to 1873; it was originally an opera house but later the upper floors were occupied by The Gazette newspaper.

Overall, the location of East Third and Locust Streets in Sterling was quite memorable and created an exciting beginning to the Sterling Murals.

The inspiration for this mural came from a Sterling postcard of East Third Street and a separate photo of the Academy of Music block, courtesy of Raymond Hughes.  Both photographs date from the early 1900s and together create and very striking first mural for the Sterling community.


The Sterling, Dixon and Eastern Electric Railway (1995) by Dan and Peter Sawatzky

Mural location:  200 Block of First Avenue (East wall of Mom’s Diner)

Depicts electric railway service operated between Dixon and Sterling from 1904 to 1925

From 1904 to 1925, the Sterling, Dixon and Eastern Railway served customers faithfully, providing both interurban and local city service for the cities of Sterling and Dixon, Illinois.

Initially, two cars were run on a 15 minute schedule from land just west of Avenue L, the western city limits of Sterling, through the town via 4th Street to Avenue B, then 3rd Street east to 10th Avenue, and back to 4th Avenue, Citizens were delighted to be able to hop a car and enjoy the countryside as the route took them Northeast to Prairieville and Gap Grove, ending up on Main in Dixon.

The spur was built going into the fairgrounds and race track at Mineral Springs, where the cars ran to the gates.  This service ended after a few years.  Also, for a short time motor #94 was put into service to haul freight and baggage consisting of local merchandise, milk in particular.  The farmers brought their milk each morning by wagon to company-erected platforms which served to facilitate the hauling of milk to the large Borden plant at the edge of Dixon.

The company obtained its ballast from a gravel pit located near Prairieville, and oddly enough, when the highways were paved around 1920, much gravel was sold and hauled to road contractors.  The sale of gravel meant badly needed revenue but at the same time the SD&EER was hastening its end as paved roads increased travel by automobile.

The mural was painted from a photograph of car #14 and motorman Walter Thomas at the age of 16.


Sterling Hydraulic Co. (1996) by Dan Sawatzky

Mural Location:  Corner of 2nd Avenue & East 3rd Street (by Drive-Up lanes of Midland States Bank)

Depicts the Sterling Hydraulic Co. as it must have looked in the early 1870’s

The Sterling Hydraulic Company, organize in 1854 when work on the lower dam and race commenced, brought about the development of industrial expansion after the Civil War and resulted in the growth of many businesses, particularly those located at the intersection of Wallace and Locust Streets:

  • Spies, Zendt & Co. Implement Works – Established in 1872.  Located on Wallace Street west of Mulberry (1st Avenue).  Manufactured harrows, corn plows, carriages, buggies and farm wagons.
  • Williams & Orton – Established 1861.  Located on Wallace Street near Locust.  Manufacturer of shafting pulleys, mill machinery, transmission wire ropes, and mill furnishers.
  • G.T. Elliot – Commercial flouring mill soon after completion of the dam, later purchased by Church & Patterson.
  • Church & Patterson Union Pacific & Sterling Flour Mills – Located at foot of Locust Street. The largest flouring mill in Whiteside County at the time.
  • Sterling Pump Co. – Established 1863.  Located at the foot of Wallace Street.  Manufactured pumps with porcelain-lined iron cylinders, and the double surface Sterling Washboard.
  • Empire Feed Mill Mfg. Co. – Organized 1870. Located at the foot of Wallace Street on the race.  Manufactured single and double feed mills, hand and power shellers, plus general jobbing and repair of all kinds of machinery.
  • Novelty Iron Works (Sterling School Furniture Co.) – Established 1869.  Located on Wallace between Avenue A and Locust Street.  Manufactured new and improved styles of school furniture (patented as the Sterling Seat), church, office and courthouse furniture, plus porcelain and gray enamel work, pump cylinders, and small castings.

The mural illustration of businesses is from an 1872 Plat Book.


Janssen and Goeken Dry Goods and Grocery (1996) by Dan Sawatzky

Mural Location:   Alley in 300 block of First Avenue & 100 E. 4th Street (between New Millennium Directories & The Big Red Church)

Depicts the Janssen and Goeken Dry Goods and Grocery which operated between 1898 and 1909.  Lightning is the dog out front. 

The Janssen Bros. grocery and dry goods store (Formerly George Gerdes general merchandise) began as a partnership between brothers Ihnke Ludwig Janssen and Friedrich Janssen.

I. Ludwig Janssen (a/k/a Louie) was born in Germany in 1858 and emigrated to the U.S. in 1869.  Louie married Alste Maria Wiemken in 1883 after she arrived from Germany.  They had five children, four boys and a girl, all born in Illinois.  His brother Friedrich died in 1898, after which the business became Janssen & Goeken grocery & dry goods establishment.  The store continued under that name until the death of Louie Janssen in 1909 at about 51 years of age. His wife, Maria, died in 1940 in Whiteside County, Illinois.

Ulrich P. Goeken (a/k/a U.P.) was a brother-in-law of Louie Janssen; he was first a clerk in the business having previously farmed with the help of his brother, John, in Hume Township.  U.P. was born in 1851 in Oldenburg, Germany, as was his wife Johanna, who was Louie’s sister.   Goeken sold the dry goods business to the Landis Brothers in 1924; he died in 1929.

It is thought that Louis Janssen and U.P. Goeken are depicted in the photo on which the mural is based; the woman to their left was their very able clerk according to family.  The store was located in the building at 319-321 First Avenue in Sterling.


Hezekiah Brink (1997) by Don Gray

Mural Location: 100 Block of E 2nd Street (South wall of Verifacts -former Kline’s Department Store)

Depicts Sterling’s Founder in 1834

In November 1834, Hezekiah Brink became the first to build on the present site of Sterling.  He left his Vermont home at the age of 16 and went to Auburn, Indiana, where he learned the hatter’s trade.  At age 20, he opened a shop in Ripley, Indiana, and removed from there to Sterling, Illinois in 1834, where he built a log house, 18 x 20 feet.  The following year he brought his family from Indiana to their new home.

Mr. Brink was a versatile man; early on he broke ground for his neighbors with three yoke of oxen.  In 1835 he broke forty acres of land where Sterling now stands and raised crops.  In 1836, he built a saw mill at Milledgeville and erected a frame for a grist mill.  Later, he built the first store in Sterling, put up a saw mill on the Elkhorn, rented a mill at Coe’s grove and followed farming until 1854.  Brink also built a stone house and rented it to the school district.  From 1855 to 1870, he engaged in general contracting, erecting most of the brick houses in Sterling.  He made all his own brick.  At the same time he conducted a store for five years.  In 1870 he returned to the farm.  The first religious society was formed in the cabin of Brinks in 1836, later becoming the Broadway Methodist Church.

Hezekiah first married in 1829 to Martha Buchanan and had four children.  She died in 1839.  He then married Sophronia L. Griffin of Ohio, and had eleven more children.  She died in 1866.  Hezekiah Brink died in 1894 at the age of 85, begin the oldest settler in this part of the country.

The Mural today has been extended to include Major Sterling for whom the town of Sterling was named, due to a coin toss.  (See Mural #15 for additional information.)


Lady Zouaves (1997) by Gary Kirby

Mural Location: South Side of Brink Circle at Central Park – just south of the Grandon Band Shell

A drill team scales a wall in 1919 and sets a world record for wall climbing

In 1917 World War I was not yet over when a veteran of that terrible war, Major Harold Ward, gathered together a group of young women who were to become The Sterling Lady Zouaves.  These women would be trained, drilled and disciplined by Harold Ward until they became the national champions know as “The Girls Who Made Sterling Famous.”

Their name and uniform came from a Berber tribe who were recruited for the French Army in 1831 and served primarily in North Africa.  Zouave regiments were organized by both the Union and the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War.

The Sterling Zouaves became adapt at gun drill, marching formations, ladder climbing and wall scaling.  In 1919, they established a world record for wall scaling at the Spanish War Veterans’ annual stat encampment at Kewanee.  Ten girls climbed over the ten-foot wall in 30 seconds, including getting their guns over.

The first out-of-town performance was given at Tampico, Illinois on July 4, 1918, after which they traveled throughout the Midwest, performing at many local celebrations including the Illinois State Fair and Fireman’s Tournament, the Moose Convention at Mooseheart, Riverview Park, Chicago, and of course, the Rotary Convention in St. Louis in 1923.

This group was a very good advertisement for the city of Sterling. As they travelled, they handed out over 35,000 handbills furnished by the Sterling Chamber of Commerce.  Their last out-of-town engagement before they disbanded was at the Paw Paw Homecoming in the fall of 1923.


Pioneer Steam Engine (1997) by Dave Barnum

Mural location: West 2nd Street at Locust Street, in public parking lot across from Sauk Valley Area Chamber of Commerce.

A crowd watches as the first iron horse, Pioneer, pulls into Sterling on July 22, 1855

The first train actually arrived in Sterling about July 22, 1855, and it was welcomed with a great celebration.

Simeon M. Coe, the first settler of Jordan Township, donated a three-year-old ox which was roasted whole on an arrangement of forked sticks. Nearly everyone attended the program and it was an outstanding one.  Stephen A. Douglas, United States Senator from Illinois, was the principal speaker.  B. F. Taylor, poet and literary editor of the Chicago Evening Journal, made a “flowery” address.  Joel A. Matteson, governor of Illinois; John B Turner, president of the railroad; Long John Wentworth, congressman; judges, editors and others of note – all were present and made speeches.  A dance at night ended the celebration.

John B. Turner, nicknamed Go-Ahead Turner, was president of the Galena and Chicago Union Company which later merged with the Mississippi and Rock River Junction Company.  The railroad era for northwest Illinois from Chicago commenced in 1850 with the completion of service to Rockford, extended in 1852 to Freeport.  The next departure was when the road was finished to Dixon, which became the shipping point and remained so for nearly two years.   The road was finished to Sterling and Morrison, and thence to Fulton on the Mississippi River in 1856.

Farmers and producers no longer needed to undertake long journeys.  But a few hours now, and over good roads at that, the products was taken to market, thus enabling the Sterling community to grow and prosper.


The Sterling “Secret Six” (1998) by Don Gray

Mural Location:  113 E. 3rd Street, on west wall of The Precinct

Six Illinois State Troopers use in the 1930’s as undercover agents

Perhaps the most controversial mural in Sterling is the one called The Secret Six.

According to articles appearing in Sterling’s newspaper, The Daily Gazette, the mystery surrounding the painting deals with the death of Sterling motorcycle policeman Robert Card, who was gunned down on August 12, 1930, as he was pursuing a car.  Family verbal history tells that Bob was one of the good cops, trying to keep bootleg whiskey and prostitution out of town.  Supposedly, prior to his death, Card had made comments to his aunt that his superiors were out to get him.  Nothing was ever proven, and the case never solved, but the family suspected possible gangland ties with the Secret Six.

The State Police, District 1, established in 1923, was the first Illinois State Police union.  O.W. “Buck” Kempster, of Peoria, (2nd from left in the mural) was the first commanding officer of Sterling.  “Buck” was issued a car and maintained headquarters in his home, an apartment above a service station.  He and five other troopers, sometimes working undercover, performed as a police unit in Chicago.  Supposedly, they played an important part in subduing Chicagoland prostitution and gambling rings, rumrunners and mobsters in the 1920’s.  By 1925, there were twelve established districts throughout the state.

The general impression is that the men of the Sterling Secret Six performed to the betterment of community and state, even though local tales also connect the famous, or possible infamous, set with murder and mayhem.

And, even though the mural is surrounded in mystery, the fact is that represents the first Illinois State Police unit in the Sterling district which included virtually all of northern Illinois, from the Mississippi River to Chicago and north to Wisconsin.

As a sidelight, it’s interesting that motorcycles were used for patrolling until 1929 when Model A Fords starting being used in winter.  The auto pictured in the mural is a 1923 Buick.


The First City Hall and Fire Station (1998) by Gary Kirby

Mural Location:   500 Block of Avenue B on the Sterling Fire Department

Depicts the first City buildings in Sterling

The first City Hall was completed in the autumn of 1889 and occupied in November of that year.  It was located at the corner of Fourth Street and First venue.  The cost to build was $27,000.  The first floor included space for police headquarters and fireman’s quarters, plus the public library rooms.  The second floors housed the Council chamber, office of the City Clerk, City Engineer and Superintendent of Streets.  In the basement were the city prison, hose and fire apparatus room, and stables for horses.  The electric automatic fire alarm bell was located in the tower.  All departments were well furnished and lighted with incandescent electric lights.

Now Sterling, having an electric fire alarm system, hose wagon and hook and ladder truck, and the best volunteer firemen in the state, could boast of having a fire department without a superior in the entire Northwest corner of the state.

Before the erection of the new City Hall and fire station, as early as 1877, the Sterling Fire Department was composed of one engine company, three hose companies, and one hook and ladder company, all located in various parts of the city.  At that time, the volunteer members numbered about one hundred fifty.  The city had the Holly system of pumps for fire purposes; these were located on the water power at the foot of Locust Street, with the wheel and power furnished by the Hydraulic Company.

The City Hall building was razed in 1954.


Adelante (1999) by Roberto Valadez

Mural Location: 300 Block Avenue C (West wall of NAPA Auto Parts)

A strong tradition and history of the local Hispanic community 

“This mural touches on the whole notion of the immigrant experience and the whole idea of coming to the United States in search of a better life,” says the artist, Roberto Valadez.  “Our mural design has a lot to do with four central themes:  work, faith, education and family.”

The “Adalente” mural spans 130×18 feet. The first panel represents faith and features the Virgin of Guadalupe bringing in immigrants from Mexico.

The second panel illustrates agriculture and industry, depicting farms and the image of a ladle pouring molten steel, representing the kinds of work the immigrants found available to them in the Sterling area.

The third panel represents Hispanic participation in World War II.  A lot of Mexican and Mexican-Americans fought very bravely in the conflict.  Many returned “home” to family in Sterling, but some did not.

The fourth panel represent the “Silver City” district in Sterling from the 1940s and 1950s; it was made up of converted railroad boxcars located near the steel mill.  This period also saw the start of Fiesta Days and the first Hispanic-owned businesses in the area.

The last panel symbolizes educational and other employment opportunities, including Sauk Valley Community College, fire and police departments and family service.  The teacher, with her hand and book extended, seems to be indicating the world is yours if you want it, through education.  Most immigrants and their descendants work hard to get ahead, always striving toward better homes, getting a better life and building a better community.


Ringling Brothers Circus Fire (2000) by Mark Ebersole

Mural Location:  In the parking lot east of 300 block of 2nd Avenue (North wall of Illinois American Water Building)

Fire struck the circus in Sterling in 1912 when burning shingles from a nearby barn blew through the air

April 12, 1922 – Five minutes before the doors to Ringling Brothers Circus were to be opened, blazing shingles from the Martin Barn set fire to the big circus tent.  It is said that 25,000 people were assembled on the grounds.  Before the flames could be extinguished, everything under the canvas roof was destroyed with the possible exception of a few tiers of seats down low.

The cause of the fire which destroyed the big tent was burning shingles from the Martin Barn located northwest of the big tent; shortly before 1 o’clock the barns were discovered to be on fire and a still alarm was sent to the fire department.   On their arrival the firemen found a small barn in flames which had quickly spread to an adjacent hay barn.   A strong northwest wind soon had blazing shingles flying in the air.

The excellent discipline commanded by Ringling Brothers was evident at all times around the grounds.  A first effort was made to protect women and children and circus employees gathered fair visitors in groups and took them to safety.

It was necessary to call off the show that day because of the time it took to get equipment the size of the one used.  The circus management refunded the entry fee to all comers, but was still able to keep its schedule in Kewanee the next day.

According to the Sterling Gazette, “the management of the circus showed rare judgment in not allowing anyone to enter the tents when it was discovered that the fire was near.  This prompt action resulted in the saving of many good lives.”


Great Northwestern Fair (2001) by Don Gray

Mural Location:  Northeast Corner of Locust Street & W. 5th Street (South wall of Crescent Electric)

A grand affair of horse racing, chute-the-chute and other event

From 1877 to 1898 Mineral Spings Park was a health resort offering accommodation to guests in a large three-story hotel which housed baths, resident doctors, masseurs and even spiritualistic séances on the top floor for those who were interested.  The grounds had facilities for picnics, dancing and large parties.

Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Albertson owned and managed the property until a group of businessmen bought the Woodlawn Mineral Springs Resort in 1898 and developed the Great Northwestern Fair, an annual event that attracted large crowds with its variety of events.

A large half-mile track was constructed with judges’ viewing stand and amphitheater for spectators. Many famous race horses were brought to Sterling to race, including Dan Patch and Minor Heir.  Occasionally the Fair managers would stage more unusual races such as between a horse and ostrich or pitting motorcycle, an airplane and a Buick Bear Cat against each other.  The car won.

In addition to the attraction of carnival rides, concession stands, side show, balloon ascensions, races, picnics and dancing, was the popular “Shooting the Chutes.”  The creek had been dammed, forming a like, and fair-goers would climb the steep stairs to the top of the chutes and ride a boat down the water chutes into the lake.

From 1904 to 1913, ten days in July were set aside for the Chautauquas, which were cultural and educational in nature, booking famous orators and entertainers for the summer programs.  By 1911 the Great Northwestern Fair had been discontinued and in 1913 the last of the Chautauquas was held.


First Flyover (2003) by Dan Sawatzky

Mural Location:  W. 5th Street, just west of Locust (on SBM)

In 1910, Pilot Eugene Ely, of Davenport, Iowa, was the first person to fly over Sterling; also the first to land and airplane on a sea-going vessel

The first airplane flight over Sterling in the fall of 1910 was piloted by Eugene Ely of Davenport, Iowa.  He was a member of the Glen Curtis Exhibition Team, a group which promoted aviation.  Like many early “barnstormers,” he owned his plane and was self taught.  He traveled from town to town so that people could see that airplanes would actually fly.

The plane arrived in a railroad boxcar and was assembled in 55 minutes.  The motor was rated at 52 mph.  At the end of the flight he would disassemble the plane and move on to the next town.  The flight over Sterling apparently was uneventful.

Eugene Ely set a precedent in aviation history following his flight in Sterling. He met Navy Captain Chambers, a strong advocate of naval participation in aviation.  He volunteered to fly from a platform on the deck of a ship.  On November 15, 1910 he took off from the Scout Cruiser U.S. Birmingham.  The ramp was 83 feet long with a 5 degree downward slope at 37 feet above water.  On the flight he barely touched the water, cracking the propeller, but was able to keep flying.

On January 18, 1911 he landed and took off from a temporary deck of the U.S.S. Pennsylvania.  This first airplane landing on a ship was the beginning of Naval carrier aircraft service.  Eugene Ely was a volunteer for the Navy and was not paid for his service.

Eugene Ely, a pioneer in barn storming and Naval aviation, died in a crash in Macon, Georgia in August 1911, one year after his Sterling flyover.  He was buried in Iowa on his 25th birthday after a flying career of less than 2 years.


First Avenue Bridge (2003) by Dan Sawatzky

Mural Location: W. 2nd Street between Avenues B & C, behind Sauk Valley Bank

First free bridge spans the Rock River between Sterling and Rock Falls, circa 1876 to 1924

There is something to be said about not having to ford the Rock River to get to the other side as was often done prior to ferry operations and erection of bridges between the two communities.

Actually, the first bridge structure was erected from five years before the Civil War, but it was short-lived, carried away in flood waters of 1857.  A water ferry system followed.  In 1863, a stock company, the Sterling Bridge Co., was formed to erect a toll bridge, to be located at Avenue B using Picnic Park, now Lawrence Park, as a mid-point to the shore on the other side.  Part of the structure was carried away by flood in 1868, but it was repaired.

It was not until 1876 that a “free” bridge was built by residents of Sterling at the foot of First Avenue to a point directly across the river to the Rock Falls shore.  It was an iron span-type bridge, each span 171 feet, approximately 20 feet above the bed of the Rock River.  A sign was posted on the bridge reading:  Five dollars fine for riding or driving on this bridge faster than a walk.

The formal grand opening ceremonies for the new bridge were held September 8, 1878.  The bridge continued to serve the twin cities until 1923, when construction of a new bridge began.

The new bridge design which replaced the old iron super-structure included a subway and outlets for Lawrence Brothers’ and National Manufacturing Co. shops, as well as the turn into Wallace Street, improving access to the two factories for trucks and vehicles.  The bridge opened to traffic December 5, 1924.

Another overhaul began in September 1980 to widen the bridge, putting in new superstructure and deck; the project was completed in November 1982 to the tune of nearly $4.6 million.

The mural is based on an 1896 photograph courtesy of the Sterling-Rock Falls Historical Society.


Major Sterling and the Coin Toss (2004) by Don Gray

Mural Location:  100 Block of E. 2nd Street (South wall of Verifacts)

The event used to name the city when Chatham and Harrisburg united

It’s not really all that complicated.  Upon the toss of a few coins, the town was named Sterling.  Stranger things have happened.

The town of Sterling was a consolidation of two settlements, Harrisburg ad Chatham.  In 1836, Captain D.S. Harris piloted the steamer Pioneer up the Rock River with a load of goods.  He sold his supplies to the settlers and in return he received from Mr. Brink a half-interest in a proposed community.  It was named Harrisburg.

During the same period, another settlement was surveyed and platted, whereby William Kirkpatrick made a claim, much to the concern of locals who feared he had chosen the location for speculation.  As a result, in 1835, Mr. Kirkpatrick signed a bond saying he would lay out a settlement, which he finalized in the spring of 1838.  He named it Chatham.

The towns of Harrisburg and Chatham were rivals until a common interest demanded throwing aside personal feelings and unite for the common good. People of both towns agreed from the start that the Rock River would become a great thoroughfare for products, either import from or export to St. Louis, and other southern points.  Transport by team over land was too slow.

When Whiteside County became fully organized and the question of a county seat arose, the people of Harrisburg and Chatham came to realize that neither town by itself, was strong enough to secure the prize.  There was a great deal of action going back and forth with little solution, and finally in 1839 it as decided to unite the towns.  Then came the question of a name.

On this point, Worthington and Brink represented Harrisburg, and Wallace and Mason, Chatham.  Mr. Brink wanted Pipsissiway, and to end the debate a proposition was offered to toss coins at a Broadway dividing line, with the coppers determining the side of the street the county building would be situated.  The winners would also have the right of naming the city.

Wallace and Mason won the toss and agreed on the name Sterling.  Hugh Wallace, the first lawyer in town, chose the name after his friend Major Sterling.  Actually, Major James Sterling, a man of excellent reputation, never lived in Sterling, and the title of Major was honorary, not military.


The President’s Corner (2005) by Don Gray

Mural Location:  1 East 3rd Street; Southeast Corner of Locust & 3rd Streets

Eight U.S. Presidents that have visited Sterling

Eight U.S. Presidents who visited Sterling are painted on the west side of the Martin Building.  The single thing they have in common, other than being President, is that they all came to our fair city at one point in time.

July 18, 1856  – The first visitor, Abraham Lincoln, who, as a lawyer, delivered a two-hour speech on behalf of John C. Fremont who was the first candidate of the new Republican Party.  Lincoln spoke out against the Kansas-Nebraska Act which would allow new territories to decide for themselves to be free or slave states.

September 16, 1880 – The former general and President Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia, came to Sterling as guests of the Whiteside County Agricultural Society, on the occasion of the Whiteside Fair.

1896 – Republican William McKinley made a brief stop in Sterling during the campaign for his presidency.

1900 – Theodore Roosevelt had gained fame as a leader of the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War two years earlier.  He assumed the presidency when McKinley was assassinated.  Roosevelt was well received in Sterling where he spoke at Central Park appealing to Americanism.

1912 – Democrat Woodrow Wilson made campaign stop.  It is said that in a vote taken at a Whiteside County teacher’s institute he was top vote-getter among women.  Of course this was eight years before women in this county gained the right to vote.  He was also the favorite among male teachers.

August 30, 1920 – Only twelve days after women received the right to vote by Constitutional amendment, Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Sterling as a Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate.  He made a brief speech from the back of a train and spoke about the League of Nations.

February 24, 1976 – Ronald Regan returned to the county of his birth, arriving in Sterling from Tampico.  He participated in a question and answer session in front of a crowd of 1500 at the Coliseum.

September 20, 1979 – George H.W. Bush kicked off his presidential campaign, attending a pork chop barbeque sponsored by Northern Illinois Republicans at Harvey Arabian Farms.

An Historical Sidelight:

Lincoln spoke here. Lincoln slept here.   How many communities can say that?  While you are looking at murals, visit the statue of Abraham Lincoln, erected in 2006 in honor of his visit and speech in Sterling 150 years earlier on July 18, 1856.  Mr. Lincoln at the time was 47 years of age, a lawyer, a former state representative, a one-term Congressman, and already an ardent foe of the expansion of slavery.  He spoke at a rally on behalf of John C. Fremont who was the presidential candidate for the newly formed Republican Party.

The life size bronze by sculptor Don Morris depict Lincoln before he grew his beard; it is placed in Propheter Park (corner of 6th Avenue and 7th Street), very near the location where he made his speech.

The statue commemorates a great American.


Sarah Worthington (2006) by Don Gray

Mural Location:  Backside of Mead’s Bike Shop, alleyway of 400 block between Locust Street & First Avenue

Portrays the first teacher in Sterling, ca. 1838

“Among the early settlers of the town of Sterling, Il, no name better deserves attention than that of the first Mrs. Worthington of her distant day.  She not only bore nobly all the hardships and privations of the usual pioneer wife and mother of four children, but she was also the organizer and teacher of the first school in the little new town and she gave Sterling its first impulses toward education, art and culture in general.

“She was the wife of Eliphalet B. Worthington, the elder of the two Worthington brothers who came here early in the 19th century and took up home sites on the bank of the lovely Rock River.  He was the first postmaster of Sterling, the first post office being in their home.

“Madam Worthington started in her home the first school in Sterling away back in 1838.  After a time the citizens built on Broadway a school house which became the first public school in the town.

“Her accomplishments, however, did not end with her years of teaching and promoting the public schools.  She had a broad general culture which she spread as widely as possible under the existing conditions.  Among other things, she was an artist of very good ability.  Some of her oil paintings are still to be seen, cherished in cultured homes of this city.

“She inherited a large share of the wit and humor to which her part-Irish ancestry entitled her, as well as the love of literature and learning.  She loved romance and idealism in writing and knew well the works of Walter Scott and his contemporaries.  The books she had brought with her she loaned generously until they actually formed the first circulating library of Sterling – history, poetry and fiction.  A long paper might be written on her knowledge, her abilities and accomplishments, social and otherwise.

“All in all, she is abundantly entitled to her place as the first woman to promote education and culture in this community, and there seems to have been no one woman of our city since her so brilliant and versatile as this first teacher, first poet, first artist, loyal friend and true patriot.  Sarah McShane Worthington.”

Source:  Excerpt from Old Home Town Column, Daily Gazette August 5, 1933.


American Legion Post 296 (2007) by Jennifer Boeke

Mural Location:  On the back of American Legion Building, 601 First Avenue

Honors all veterans and specifically public services performed by Sterling Legionnaires since 1919

“It won’t be the first monument to area veterans, but it may be the most colorful,” says an article in the Sterling Daily Gazette.

American Legion Post 296 was organized in 1919 after World War I by five prominent Sterling citizens:  Keith Benson, Charles Larson, Leo Wahl, Edward Wahl and Philip Ward.  Its preamble, which begins “For God and Country, we associate ourselves together…” is a heartfelt dedication to Freedom and Democracy by all veterans and Legionnaires, for the home, community and country in which they reside.

Dr. Edward Wahl served as First Commander from 1919-1920; his portrait appears in sepia tone in the mural.

Several printed references and more than 30 photographs were used to develop the concept of the Legion Mural, covering such subjects as the Color Guard, Rifle Squad, Women’s Auxiliary, Flag Presentation at funerals, Drum Corps, a WWI Cannon donated by the Government, and the Memorial Day Wreath presented each year at the Soldier’ Monument in Central Park.

A former Post Commander remarked that the folding of the U.S. flag and presentation of same to the surviving family of veterans is possibly the most honored and remembered of all traditions.  And yet, the act of honoring dignitaries by rifle fire on special occasions in public ceremony, marching in parades, or selling “poppies” in a fund-raiser for veterans may all be considered of equal value and of no less importance.

Truly, it is the simple fact that the Legionnaires are always there – willing and able to serve Sterling citizens in any capacity – which brings honor to veterans who have served their country.


The Lincoln Highway Radio Show (2013)

Mural Location:  Corner of Locust and E. 5th Street, on the North wall of Grummert’s Hardware

A gift from the Illinois Lincoln Highway Coalition, this Mural is the 34th in a series of large scale works of public art which can be found along the 179-mile Illinois Byway corridor, in over two dozen communities.

This mural is distinctive; it is the only one in the Lincoln Highway Collation series to be made up of five smaller murals grouped together forming a collection of early Lincoln Highway era advertisements for the NBC national radio program, The Lincoln Highway Radio Show. This popular radio drama ran from 1940 to 1942, on 80 stations, using the famed highway as the setting for thrilling tales of life along the coast-to-coast route. Shinola Shoe Polish sponsored the weekly, featuring many Hollywood celebrities of that time period as guest stars. Visitors to the Sterling display will take a “step back in time” as they enjoy the murals. Each one is expertly painted from authentic vintage posters promoting the historic Lincoln Highway radio show.


Lincoln in Sterling (2015) 
by John Gragert, and sons Gaston, Bradon, Kylon & Nolan

Mural Location:  Northwest Corner of East 3rd Street & 7th Avenue

Dedicated on Sunday, July 26, 2015 as the 20th Mural in Sterling, marking the 20th Anniversary of the Sterling Mural Society.

Abraham Lincoln, then 47, a lawyer and former congressman from Springfield, came to Sterling to speak at a rally for the Republican Party’s first presidential candidate, John C. Fremont.  On July 18, 1856, a twist of fate brought Mr. Lincoln to the home of Sheriff William Manahan to spend the night.  He slept on a sofa with two chairs placed at its end to accommodate his long legs.  In the morning, one can imagine, he graciously thanked his host and left Sterling for a speaking engagement.

The mural is based on an image created by the noted Lincoln artist, Lloyd Ostendorf, who created his drawing from the account of the days’ event depicted in the local newspaper.

The Manahan Home, also shown in the mural and located across the street, was restored by the Sterling-Rock Falls Historical Society to its 1856 appearance, and opened as a public home museum in 2011. As part of the restoration process, a privy dig resulted in the discovery of tomato seeds from the 1850’s.   The seeds were successfully cultivated, producing a previously unknown variety of tomato.   You will note the tomato vine trailing along the bottom of the mural.