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Web posted Saturday, March 17, 2001

Loving County, Texas, census 'bout 60 or so


The Associated Press

MENTONE, Texas (AP) -- Smoke 'em if you got 'em at the Boot Track Cafe in Loving County. And leave the plastic in your wallet when the bill comes, because credit cards aren't accepted.

"The rules that apply a lot of places don't apply here," says Don Creager, a Loving County judge for 28 years. "We just live a different lifestyle. We like it the way it is."

The way it is is empty: Over the past decade, no county in the Lower 48 states has had fewer people than this slice of west Texas tucked underneath New Mexico.

Loving County's population dropped from 141 in 1992 to 113 two years ago and was just 67 last year, according to census figures released this week.

There is no grocery store here, or bank, or hospital, not even a cemetery. No doctors or lawyers. The nearest sizable city is Pecos, 20 miles to the south, with about 9,500 people. And even they go to Odessa for big shopping trips.

Loving County is so vacant that each inhabitant could claim 10 square miles as his or her own. City dwellers in Manhattan get 400 square feet.

There are not a lot of rules and regulations, meaning smokers can light up anywhere in Loving County's only sit-down eating establishment.

"You go up to Austin and you can't smoke anywhere," Boot Track owner Charles Derrick says as he takes a drag on a filterless cigarette.

The wide-open spaces are knotted together by a few roads that lead to Mentone, the county's sole town. Residents wave as they make the familiar trip to take care of business. They enjoy a community bond that insulates them against crime and juvenile delinquency.

"You can't chuck a rock without hitting someone you know," Derrick says. "It's just small enough that people know each other and you don't have to worry about things disappearing."

Except, perhaps, the community itself.

The county's population plummeted 37.4 percent between 1990 and 2000 -- more than any other Texas county. No families are moving in and residents expect little change.

County Commissioner Royce Creager says oil and gas yield 98 percent of tax revenue, about $1 million in 2000. The median income in 1997, the latest figure available, was about $32,000. Most adults work in the oil patch.

The county's 10 school-age children travel to Wink, 26 miles from Mentone, to learn their lessons.

Creager's wife, Barbara, says she was somewhat surprised by the new census figures, but knows people are trickling away. As Derrick's wife, Regena, puts it: "There ain't nothing new here."

The scarcity of water and a fragile economy bind the community together.

The area receives just over 10 inches of rain a year, and some people have tried diverting water from the Pecos River.

to nurture cotton and grain. But as users upstream in New Mexico made claims on the water, its quality and quantity declined and farming dropped off.

Until recently, there was ranching. But drought made the landscape of greasewood and mesquite even less forgiving than usual.

A few area wells supply drinkable water, but they are not connected to a large, reliable aquifer. Even when a well produces, the water often is hard or polluted from mining. Most people must haul water.

Elgin Ray Jones has been poking holes in the county's dusty crust for years in search of water to support his community. With a sun-wrinkled finger, he points to drawings of geologic strata, where he believes a reliable source could be hidden 200 feet down.

Says his wife, Mary Belle: "Before I die, I'd like to live in a house where I could turn on the faucet without feeling guilty."

The county has been around since the late 1800s. It was named for Oliver Loving, a cattleman who was mortally wounded by Indians as he rode ahead of his herd in 1866.

Its population peak may have been in 1933, when 600 people lived here, most of them hoping to cash in on an oil boom that started in the mid-1920s.

Since then, things have declined quietly, except for an occasional oddity, like last year's election for a county commission seat.

A surprising 212 people registered to vote. Postal authorities had received a flood of requests for post office boxes, which can be used to establish residency, while recreational vehicles and trailer homes moved in for the same purpose.

Two-term incumbent Harlan Hopper won the election 37-24, but write-in opponent J.W. "Buddy" Busby challenged the results. A judge called in to sort out the mess found that 170 of the registrations were valid. The judge ordered a new election, and Hopper won again, 14-2.

"They may fight like cats and dogs on election day," Judge Creager says, "but then a tragedy or a function comes along like the fish fries we have and everyone gets along."

In fact, there are few complaints.

"We have beautiful sunrises and sunsets and beautiful moonrises and moonsets and gobs of space and we need it," says Mary Belle Jones, who acts as the county historian.