Photo Credit: 
Curtis Awbrey | The Chronicle
Sterling City Hall.
Sterling City Hall.

A small town quickly sprang up in the northeast corner of Comanche County after the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Reservation was opened for settlement in August 1901 by lottery. A few months later, in October, Sterling had established a post office.

The townsite was named for Capt. Charles Sterling, a Texas Ranger who was a cattleman in the area prior to 1901. Previously, a small settlement known as Hamlin was located east of the new town. An early-day pioneer of the area, Mrs. Carrie Kennedy Halbrooks, told a staff member of the Great Plains Historical Association that Doc Dodds, who later was a postmaster at Fletcher, planned and platted the town of Hamlin.

Historical documents, including early day newspapers, don’t reveal who the community of Hamlin was named for and there aren’t any records of a post office being established with that name. However, there is mention in a historical article written by Hugh D. Corwin and published in “The Lawton Constitution” in 1963, that a “rival townsite group planned a town just to the west of Hamlin and decided to name it Sterling.” Corwin was the secretary of the GPHA and was also editor of the quarterly journal of the Southwestern Historical Society from 1964 to 1983.

Mrs. Carrie Kennedy Halbrooks and her brother W.G. moved to the area with the Kennedy family from Texas in December 1901. They settled on their homestead located about a half-mile south of Hamlin. A town square was already established with businesses such as a wagon yard, a small bakery, a few small store buildings, a saloon and a drugstore. Corwin’s mention of a “rival townsite group” implies there may have been controversy or disagreement in establishing the early day communities in this area.

Documents show that J.M. Talbot was head surveyor of the Sterling townsite. He apparently was short of workers and asked two sisters from Lawton, daughters of boarding house owner Mrs. Martha Burton Warner, if they would assist in the survey by holding and carrying chains. They received Sterling town lots as their pay.

The original Oklahoma City and Western Railroad, later known as the Frisco, was already crossing through the homestead of Fletcher Dodge on its way to Elgin and the Sterling townsite was left without rail access. This opened a business opportunity for haulers and freighters, as all goods in and out of the area were freighted overland. One company, the Elgin Transfer Line, owned by E.R. Wolcott, ran an ad in the Aug. 31, 1911, edition of the “Sterling News” noting that special attention was given to transfer trade. Their motto was, “The world moves, so do we.”

Corwin’s article mentioned a schoolteacher by the name of Frank Novak who came to Oklahoma Territory in 1901 and registered for the KCA Reservation land lottery. By luck of the draw, he received a fairly low number and filed on a homestead located five miles northwest of Sterling. For a home, he built a dugout in the bank of a dry branch of Nine Mile Beaver Creek, which crossed his land. According to Novak, his dugout (10 x 12 feet) was the only one in the area with boards for the floor.

Dugouts, and a variation called a half-dugout, were common and functional in the early pioneer days of Oklahoma, wrote Bobby Harold Johnson in his 1967 dissertation, “Some Aspects of Life in ‘The Land of the Fair God’: Oklahoma Territory, 1889-1907.” Dugout residents reported having to dip water from their home after a rain and having to deal with the occasional snakes, spiders, bugs and rodents that wanted to share the abode. Even with the inconveniences, it was still shelter for those who couldn’t afford lumber to build a home and some dugouts were lived in for years. Johnson cited in his dissertation an M.W. Abernathy, from near Altus, that described his dugout home as “cool in the summer and warm in the winter.”

Life wasn’t all peaceful on the plains, as there are accounts of gunfights and murder on record from the early days. One example from the Sterling area is the 1901 triple murder of three members of the Higginbotham family. Corwin wrote an article in the Feb. 16, 1964, edition of “The Lawton Constitution” reconstructing the event.

The Higginbotham family had a homestead about five miles northwest of Sterling in the Signal Mountain area. The father and four sons harvested prairie hay and sold it to the Army at Fort Sill. A settler by the name of John Roberts, who lived in a tent with his wife and 5-year-old son, had a fight with Higginbotham and three of his sons over a few bales of hay.

Roberts rode to Novak’s dugout home nearby and said the Higginbotham father and two of his sons had beat and threatened him and took his revolver. Mrs. Roberts told authorities that her husband had walked the floor of their tent home all night and brooded over the beating he had received. The next day he went back to Novak’s dugout and borrowed a shotgun, which he had done several times before, and said he had spotted a buck deer in the woods.

Soon shots were heard. Roberts killed the father and two of the sons. The account written by Corwin said that Roberts went home, told his wife what he had done, tore up all pictures of himself and left his wife and son. He rode to Novak’s dugout, returned the shotgun and rode off to the southwest in the direction of Lawton. He was never found.

The small town that sprang up quickly in northeast Comanche County in 1901 has stayed relatively small over the last 120 years. Census records show that even with an active business community, the population of Sterling has never reached 1,000 people.

Sources for this article also include: The Oklahoma Historical Society, okhistory.org; the book “Tri-City History 1902-2002”; “The Lawton Constitution,” Dec. 1, 1963, article by Hugh D. Corwin, “Town of Sterling named for Texas Ranger”; and “The Lawton Constitution,” Feb. 16, 1964, article by Hugh D. Corwin, “The 1901 Higginbotham Murders.”