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You gotta be 'Loving' it

Winkler County's neighbor to the east <west> is famous

for being America's least populated

Article from the Associated Press printed in the Winkler County News, Tuesday, May 07, 2007

Note: Loving County is actually to the WEST of Winkler county. I have corrected that in red. ~Kay

On paper, some think life in Loving County is idyllic. There's no poverty, little or no crime, only four people are employed most of the time, and everyone makes more money than the average American. Oh, and the daily commute is shorter than the national average, especially if your going to work around Orla.

"The last (criminal) trial was in the "80's", Sheriff Billy Hopper said after taking a few minutes to dredge up the memory.

But f you live in Loving County and need a gallon of milk, or a re hoping to use a credit card to gas up the car, it's a 32-mile trip to Kermit, and a 23-mile trek to Pecos. If you need anything more elaborate, it's on to Carlsbad or Odessa.

If there's an emergency, fire, rescue or what have you, first responders from Winkler County have to make the long trip west.

But, folks who live in the nation's least populated county -- the 2000 Census shows just 67 residents, though locals insist their head count shows it closer to 80 -- say it's worth it.

"It's just away from all of the flippin' people," Hopper said recently as he sat in his one-room sheriff's office inside the county courthouse. "I can walk out of my house at night and I can tell you what's happening within a mile of here."

Loving County sprawls over 673 square miles -- about the same size as Houston with its 2 million people. But outside a 10-mile radius of Mentone, all a visitor will find is brown -- and occasionally green -- prairie.

Mentone, the county seat, is dotted with just a handful of buildings, about 120 miles southeast (southwest) of Midland. It sits just below the New Mexico line off a two-lane highway trafficked mostly by oil field workers.

The town was once bustling with a few restaurants and a hotel, but the population has been on the decline for more than 60 years.

"A lot of people left during the war," Hopper said. "The roads got better and you didn't have to live here."

Lacking a major highway or Interstate freeway, Mentone isn't really on the way to anywhere except the lucrative oil fields.

Most blame the steady population drop on the lack of jobs For those who have stayed, about the only career options are in ranching or the oil industry. And most oil field workers are contractors who don't live in the county and commute from Winkler County, Odessa or other cities.

With the people went some services, including the county's school. Hopper was the last high school student to attend classes locally.

"In the fall fo 1951, there were eight of us," Hopper recalled recently. "But by Christmas time," he was alone. He finished his studies in Pecos and now the few school-age kids in town commute about 30 miles each way to neighboring Wink.

About six Loving County students commute up to 45 miles one way to attend school in the combined Wink/Loving Independent School District.

Among those are high school seniors Sarah Jones and Roy Lindsay.

Mentone is now home to only the gas station and the Boot Track Cafe, which is open just half the day.

Hopper left, too, for a time. He joined the Air Force in 1959 -- he was the only eligible draftee the county had and didn't want to be an Army soldier -- and later took a job as an oil contractor and worked all over the world.

He came back in the 1980's and has no plans to leave.

In Loving County, not only does everyone know everyone -- and their business -- most folks are related. And in a crisis, everyone helps.

"When my home burned down in 1979 it took me four hours to open all the gifts," said Barbara Creager, a native New Zealander who has lived in the area since the early 1970s.

And when local resident Opal Cook died earlier this month at the age of 76, everyone made plans to attend her funeral in Pecos -- including the county offices, which closed for the occasion.

"We all come together as a family," said Brenda Wildman, 56.

Wildman lives in Waco right now, but often visits Loving County and still owns property there.

Jaime Acker Jones, a 43 year-old oil field contractor who lives just down the highway from Mentone's primary four-corner intersection, said people live in the remote community because it's not crowded or overrun with gangs or drug problems.

"If you're raising kids, it's great," Jones said. "They stay out of trouble here."





Page last updated April 29, 2009

Copyright 2009 ~DEB~

Copyright 2007 by Kay Woods-Lopez