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Barren West Texas County's population keeps dwindling

Loving Co., Mentone, Texas 
By Chris Roberts Associated Press, Mar 18 2001


MENTONE--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," said Don Creager, a Loving County judge for 28 years." We just live a different lifestyle. We like it the way it is."


Empty is the way it is: 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' 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 sitdown eating establishment.


"You go up to Austin and you can't smoke anywhere," Bott Track owner Charles Derrick says as he takes a drag on a filterless cigarett. "You step outside the hotel (to smoke) and they ask you what you're doing there."


The wide-open spaces are knotted together by a few roads that lead to enjoy a community bond that insulates them against crime and juvenile delinquency.

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 said oil and gas yield 98 % 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.

The county has been around since the late 1800's. It was named for Oliver Loving, a cattleman who was mortally wounded by Indians as he rode ahead of his herd in 1866. The county's population peak might 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- 1920's.