Not-So-Loving County

No place in America has so few people, so much empty space, and such intense political feuding.

OUT WHERE THE RADIO SIGNALS FADE to static, past where the telephone poles and speed limit signs end, lies one of the loneliest spots on earth: Loving County, where the oil wells outnumber the people ten to one. One hundred and two humans live here, to be exact, making it officially the least-populous area in the nation. “If we have two people with the flu,” says county judge Don Creager, “that’s an epidemic.” The county seat, Mentone (population: 15), is the kind of town you’d miss if you blinked, just a few scattered homes, a short-order cafe, a filling station, a post office, and the courthouse—a boxy yellow-brick building whose interior was lavishly remodeled with Georgia marble and pecan paneling back in the seventies, when oil was flowing more freely. Beyond Mentone, sprawled out beneath the enormous West Texas sky, lie 673 square miles of relentlessly flat land, marked only by bobbing pump jacks and a few shotgun shacks from long-gone boom times, their corrugated tin doors flapping in the wind. No schools, no churches, no banks, no grocery stores, no movie theaters, and no bars. But there’s plenty to do if you’re involved in Loving County’s favorite blood sport: politics. And almost everyone here is involved in politics.

There’s not much crime out here, you know,” says Sheriff Richard Putnam. “We’ve arrested, let’s see—” he twirls a toothpick around the corner of his mouth while he mulls this over—“oh, three or four people, I’d say, in the past four years, all for oil stealing. If it’s local people, we can usually handle it without an arrest. We do our jobs, but with kid gloves, so we don’t hurt any feelings or step on any toes. You always have to think about the next election, you know.”

Loving County residents are always thinking about the next election. Thirty-seven percent of the work force is employed by the county, mainly in elected positions. Elections are often knock-down-drag-out fights that have less to do with the issues at hand than the proclivity to “get caught in echoes of the past,” as one longtime resident puts it: the tangled web of family rivalries, personal vendettas, and enduring grudges among locals. Wide-open spaces don’t necessarily breed open minds; Loving’s spiteful, tribal politics have occasionally threatened to destroy the détente between the county’s families. “Years ago, when we found boot prints under Mother’s window, we knew it wasn’t prurience—it was politics,” says justice of the peace McKinley Hopper. “Although nothing’s more prurient than politics.

Voter turnout is always a hundred percent, sometimes more,” says Hopper, who, as the 75-year-old patriarch of the Hopper clan, has witnessed plenty of election shenanigans. “Oh, there have been some red-hot lawsuits over voting! Some outlandish things have happened that made people madder than hornets. Texas Rangers have been brought in to view the whole thing, votes have been counted in an El Paso courtroom. People would ‘move’ to Loving County the night before Election Day and set up their bedrolls in different precincts. When my brother was sheriff, he showed up to vote once without his poll tax receipt. When he went across the street to get it, they closed the polls an hour early so he couldn’t vote.”

Loving County has cleaned up its act since the forties and fifties—when vote rigging and corruption resulted in numerous lawsuits—and the sixties, when now-deceased cafe owner Newt Keen would dryly tell customers about the boy who wept on Election Day when he learned that his dead father had voted but not bothered to visit. But the county still possesses the dubious honor of occasionally having more registered voters than residents. “Honey, Election Day here is still the most crooked thing you’ve ever seen,” says Edna Dewees, who served from 1946 to 1948 as the first woman elected sheriff in both Loving County and the state of Texas. “People are casting votes, and you’ve never seen ’em before in your life. It’s not nearly as strange as it used to be, but it’s still pretty quirky.” Thanks to Texas’ domicile law, people who don’t live or work in the county can still vote there if they own a piece of land—and there’s plenty of land in Loving County for sale. “All you need to do is claim one of these little old deserted shacks or even a tree that you can eat your supper under as your own,” says one woman, who asked not to be named. “It’s all perfectly legal.”

These ploys, along with last-minute write-in campaigns and the practice of regularly contesting elections, keep the county’s prominent families in highly excited states every election season. By all accounts, the bickering has quieted significantly since the Morehead and Wheat clans died off or moved away. “Now a little harmony has finally come to pass,” says McKinley Hopper, with a meaningful glance, “as long as no yellow journalists decide to change all that.” Nonetheless, competition for elected positions between the remaining families—the Hoppers, the Creagers, and the Joneses—is still fierce, and not just because of long-standing rivalries. County jobs have increasingly become Loving’s only safe bet for a steady income. The county’s economy is based on the land, but oil and gas resources are rapidly dwindling, and Loving’s mineral rights are owned almost entirely by absentee landlords. Ranchland, which has been depleted by oil drilling and brackish irrigation water from the Pecos, is hardly profitable: There is so little vegetation in Loving that it takes 120 acres just to support one cow (it takes 10 acres around comparatively lush Waco).

Despite these hurdles, many Loving residents who hold elected office spend their afternoons working in the oil fields or ranching. They enjoy working the land more than shuffling papers, and their desk jobs usually don’t warrant more than a brief appearance at the courthouse each weekday morning. Their county jobs, however, ensure that, boom or bust, rain or dry spell, there will always be money to put food on the table—one

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