Not-So-Loving County

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

October 1997By Comments

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 reason why no one raises an eyebrow at the fact that more than 40 percent of collected taxes go toward paying county salaries. The Hoppers, who first settled Loving County around 1900, have won a few key county positions, as have the Joneses, who wielded more power when Punk Jones was sheriff in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. But the Creagers, who mostly live in a cluster of homes north of Mentone nicknamed Creagerville, currently have the biggest piece of the pie. Don Creager is the county judge, his brother Royce is a county commissioner, his step-daughter Kathryn Putnam is the postmaster, and his son-in-law Richard Putnam is both the sheriff and the county tax assessor. The locals find it all amusing. One visit to Don Creager’s office was interrupted by a call from the postmaster, Kathryn.

“Well, now, you’d need to speak to the sheriff about that matter,” Creager said into the receiver, chuckling. “Oh, yes, I forgot. You’re married to the sheriff.”

ONE PLACE WHERE THE LOVING FAMILIES come together is the Mentone Cafe—a little spot with a plain pine floor, a few plastic-covered tabletops, spinning ceiling fans, and the sound of a deep fryer gurgling in the background. Carefully pleasant to one another, locals regularly discuss the oil business and share lunchtime gossip over heaping plates of chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes. The cafe lost its jukebox a few years back, as well as one of its more legendary visitors, J. J. Wheat, the oil-rich baron of Loving County who liked to barrel down unpaved farm roads in one of his gleaming Rolls-Royces. Many of Loving’s dramas unfolded here over the years: the killing of a truck driver on the Wheat ranch, to which J.J. pleaded no contest and for which he received ten years’ probation; the showdown between cafe owner Newt Keen and then-sheriff Punk Jones over Newt’s illegal habit of serving beer until the wee hours of the morning; and the trial of McKinley Hopper and others for allegedly stealing oil. And those are just the stories people will talk about. There are other darker secrets that locals refer to in passing.

“The reason I keep on tiptoeing around these stories,” says one longtime resident in a conversation that stretched on for an afternoon, “is because they are laced with the most disgusting, insipid politics.” Rivalries and squabbles—combined with an already small population—have led to the demise of any space, except for the cafe, where county residents might congregate—the school was disbanded, the church abandoned, and there is no cemetery. Families are buried in neighboring  counties where they won’t have to spend an eternity together. Although residents insist that they always unite in times of crisis, spending much time together is usually avoided. Ten years ago, when Texas Monthly asked Loving County’s residents if they would pose for a Valentine’s Day cover, the answer was a resounding no. “I don’t like to take pictures with people I don’t like,” one woman replied, “so why pose as if we all get along great?”

Loving County, after all, was not named after the sublimest emotion, but for rugged cattleman Oliver Loving. And like him, locals cling to their land despite daunting odds. In 1867 Loving and a companion were attacked by Comanche Indians; the two took refuge in a ditch behind a sand dune and held their ground, though Loving was shot in the wrist and side. After his partner slipped away in the night to get help, Loving fended off the attackers for another two days before escaping into the shallow Pecos and crawling, swimming, and walking six miles upstream to a crossing, where travelers found him and took him by wagon to Fort Sumner, more than a hundred miles away. He died there of shock when a doctor sawed off his gangrenous arm, later becoming the inspiration for the character of Augustus McCrae in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. In many ways Loving’s fierce determination to survive is still felt in the county named after him, where the living is anything but easy. Until a new freshwater well was dug and a water tank built in Mentone, drinking water had to be hauled in. Groceries and conveniences must still be bought in Pecos, 23 miles from Mentone and much farther for those who live on ranches in remote parts of the county. The water from the Pecos River is so thick with minerals that it will destroy, in a year’s time, the plumbing of any dishwasher, toilet, or sink. Oil and gas drilling has declined so rapidly that the county’s tax base nose-dived from $518 million fifteen years ago to $119 million this year. And a hazardous-waste site, recently approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, may refill the county’s coffers, but at the expense of possibly contaminating the land’s fragile formations of rock, sand, and shale.

Despite these hardships and pitfalls—and the sandstorms, hailstorms, and months without rain—Loving’s residents aren’t planning to leave anytime soon. “When I first came to Mentone in 1953, it was quite a shock,” says Mary Belle Jones. “I said to my husband, ‘Punk, how long are we going to live in this godforsaken place?’ Back then, the pavement ended at the county line, and there was nothing in sight but steel oil derricks. I was twenty-one, with two babies, and I just couldn’t stand it; I cried practically every day for two years. But it’s home now,” she says cheerfully, looking out toward the caliche road and rolling plains that lie beyond her white frame house. “The isolation is what I didn’t like, but now I appreciate the solitude. There’s nothing prettier than a West Texas sunset or a rising moon. The nights are real clear and the stars shine and you can see forever.”

Sheriff Putnam isn’t going anywhere either. “I don’t like crowds much,” he says, twirling another toothpick meditatively. “I don’t belong in a place like Austin or San Antone. I need room. Besides, the folks out here are good, friendly people. Unless, of course, you’re trying to break into politics.”

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