Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
THE MANY AMBITIONS OF WILLIAM S. STERLING
When capitalist entrepreneur William S. Sterling ventured westward in the 1830s, he left his family in the town bearing their name some 35 miles west of Boston. He took with him settlers who were professionals such as skilled artisans, craftsmen, bankers, barrel makers, doctors, and attorneys. William Sterling had a gift of gab and easily persuaded folks to leave their trade or livelihood to join him in forming new towns "out west" on the frontier.
In 1835, these people from Sterling, Massachusetts laid out and platted Sterling, Michigan, which is now a large, thriving suburb of Detroit. From there they moved to Ohio where some of them stayed to found Mt. Sterling, Ohio southwest of Columbus. Most of the group continued with William through Indiana and settled in the Military Tract of Illinois near Springfield, founding the town of Mt. Sterling, Illinois. But another group split and went south into Kentucky, founding a town (Mt. Sterling) near Lexington.
Almost as soon as Mt. Sterling, Illinois came into being, William ventured westward. He took a large group through Alexandria, Missouri in 1839 to settle along the Fox River in the disputed area of Iowa Territory that was also claimed by Missouri. One group of settlers built a trading post, mill and an inn along the Fox River and called their village Woods Mills after the Woods brothers, Horace and George, who ran the mill. A second village emerged, as a large caravan settled atop the hill and called their venture Union Corners. The census of 1840 lists 50 to 70 professional people living in this combined community.
William Sterling once proposed a plank road to be built between Alexandria and Mt. Sterling, then on through Bloomfield to Des Moines. In 1842 a post office was established and the town was named Mt. Sterling officially, although the dual towns continued to be known as Woods Mills and/or Union Corners until the 1850s.
William S. Sterling did not stay long after Mt. Sterling was established. Around 1845, he took a sizeable group with him to Wisconsin. It is believed that he founded Sterling, Illinois on the Rock River. From there he migrated up the Mississippi River to Prairie Du Chien, got off, and founded Mt. Sterling, Wisconsin about 25 miles inland. Thus four to seven towns and villages owe their beginning to the proprietorship of this one very talented, ingenious individual.
Later John Gwinnup would lay out and plat Gwinnupsburg when the railroad came through during the 1870s. By now the lower town had vanished and people clung to higher ground in the area of present-day Mt. Sterling. The town reached a population well over 300 for awhile, although Gwinnupsburg contributed little, as it remained a paper town and did not materialize. The nickname "Dogtown" came about because many dogs ran loose on the dusty streets of the little trading village known as Woods Mills.
(Some of this information was contributed by Don Cesar, former mayor of Mt. Sterling.)
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick