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
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
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
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
"W"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