By Mary Belle Jones
The least populated county in the continental United States, Loving County has, according to the 1990 census, l 104 residents. The county covers an area of 674 square miles, making over 6 square miles per person. Because of this uniqueness Loving County is written up in news papers, magazines and books. Mentone, the county seat and only town in the county, has a post office, courthouse, gas station, cafe, a historical community- church building and a former school house presently used for a community center. Known more for what it does not have rather than what it does, the county has no grocery store, no doctor or hospital, no bank or chamber of commerce, no active church and no cemetery.
Although there is no cemetery in the county there are graves, at least 4 of them are marked. John P. Clawson, 1863 - 1908, a homesteader, died and was buried on his place in what is now the Johnson’s Slash Ranch. In 1912, Shady Davis, a young cowboy on a ranch 35 or 40 miles north of Mentone was dragged by his horse. His friends wrapped him in a wet sheet, placed him in a wagon and started to Pecos to the nearest doctor. Shady, being broken and skinned very badly, knew he was going to die. He ask his friends to bury him on a hill in the Slash Ranch where there is a panoramic view. His friends tried hard to dig the grave on that hill, but because it was almost solid rock they moved down the hill to a sandy place and buried their 21 year old friend there, 9 miles north of Mentone. Rex and Polly McQueen worked for Sid Mac Kyle on the Kyle ranch, Sid referred to them as “family”. Rex was buried in 1991 on a hill above the ranch headquarters. Julian Sanchez who worked on the Johnson’s Slash and Boyd ranches for many Years and was respected in this area as a “Savvy Cowman” was buried in 1992 on the Slash Ranch near the grave of Shady Davis.
Loving County was the western most part of Tom Green County in 1885 when the Upper Pecos Valley petitioned the Nineteenth Legislature of Texas to be made part of Reeves County for Judicial and Land Surveying purposes. The petition red in part, “We respectfully call your attention to the fact that in order to reach the county seat in San Angelo, we are compelled to travel from 250 to 350 miles and through six organized counties and county seats not including Midland County. The petition was signed by eleven “tax paying citizens” of the Upper Pecos Valley, one of whom was R.C. (Clay) Allison, the famous gun fighter. Thus, Loving County was created during the Texas Legislative session of 1887 along with several other West Texas counties and was attached to Reeves County for Judicial and all other purposes. It was named in honor of Oliver Loving who was mortally wounded by Indians in this territory. Loving and his partner, Charles Goodnight drove herds of cattle from central Texas to Fort Sumner, New Mexico and to ranges in Colorado.
The 1887 tax rolls showed thee cattle enterprises in Loving County belonging to the Continental Land and Cattle Company, The Seven Rivers Cattle Company and A. Travis Windham. The three enterprises constituted the only cattle interest in the county and according to the 1890 census there were only three persons living in the county. They were males and all lived in one house.
In 1893 six men came into Loving County and founded the Loving Canal and Irrigation Company. A town was founded on a site 14 miles upriver from present day Mentone in what is now the Lindley Ranch, owned by Margaret Lindley of Pecos and Mentone. The town was named by a homesick surveyor from Menton, France. As work began on the canals, people moved in and a petition was circulated to organize the county. The petition garnered 150 signatures, an election was held and a slate of 16 county officials was elected, six of whom were the six that founded the Loving Canal and Irrigation Company. The officials filed applications for the ownership of public-school land and were awarded a league of school land in Dawson County. The Commissioners then authorized the county judge, as its agent, to sell the land.
Historians and the State of Texas concede that the organization of the county in 1893 was conceived in fraud and was fraudulent operated until 1897. By that time the irrigation project was a dream that never came true, crushing the hopes of those who had moved into the area. It was rumored that many of the 150 signatures on the petition were forged, that certain officials pocketed the monies from the sell of the school lands and from collected taxes. Then they left before the others when the irrigation project failed. True or untrue, the political conditions had become very confused by 1897. Just 4 years after its organization, Loving became the only county in the state to be disorganized by an act of the State Legislature. It was reattached to Reeves County for judicial and all other purposes.
The 1900 census listed Loving County having a population of 30 consisting of seven families and some ranch workers. The Johnson Brothers purchased the “W” Ranch from Continental Land & Cattle Company. At the height of their ranching career they possessed 1,200 sections (768,000 acres) of land in Winkler, Loving and Ward Counties. The Johnson Heirs still have the Slash and Boyd Ranches in Loving County and the VH Ranch in Reeves County. Young Bell and Sid Kyle were ranches in the county arriving in 1900. Miss Minnie Mogonigill arrived a little later acquiring a piece of land and some cattle. Miss Minnie and Sid struck up a romance and were married in 1904, she and Mrs. Bill Gibbons, wife of the manager of the Johnson Brother’s Ranch, were the only females in the county. After the death of Sid Kyle, Miss Minnie sold her part of the ranch to Buck Jackson who sold it to its present owner Roy O. Lindsay. Sid Mack Kyle, the son of Minnie and Sid, left his part of the ranch to A&M University. Oliver Kiehne etal acquired the ranch from A& M. Young Bell, a neighbor rancher to the Johnson and Kyle Ranches, remodeled the house on his ranch installing a bathroom, the first indoor plumbing in Loving County. Herman Lindley acquired the Bell ranch his widow, Margaret, still owns the ranch and leases it to Roy O. Lindsay. Tom and Evelyn Linebery have owned and operated the second largest ranch in the county for many years. James J. Wheat, Jr. purchased the Hall ranch in the eastern part of the county, his widow Louise, owns and leases the ranch to Charlie Mitchell. John A. Haley owns and ranches the property formerly belonging to his father, John F. Haley.
Of the few brave people who homesteaded here, B.H. “Bass” Hoper is the only one who has descendants remaining. His grandson, McKinley was a former County Judge and then a Justice of Peace. A brother of McKinley’s, Thornton, served as Sheriff Tax assessor-Collector and then as Commissioner, Precinct 1. Thornton’s son, Harlan, now holds that position and his daughter, Beverly Hanson, is County and District Clerk.
E. L. Stratton brought immigrants from the Midwest to Loving County in 1905 encouraging them to buy land for farming. The settler’s post office was called “Juanita” until Dr. Phil Porter platted a town site that was named Porterville in his honor. In 1910 Porterville was the only settled community in the county. During this time the population rose from 7 families and 33 persons to 86 families and 249 persons. This increase resulted directly from the resumption of efforts to irrigate potential farm land along the Pecos River and from the establishment of the town. In 1908 the people of Porterville started a fund raising, having bake sales, box suppers, etc to raise money to build a school house. All working together, the people finished the school in time for the first term of school in 1909. The building was used as a school - community building and as a church. The farming failed and Porterville was no more. Of the first immigrants to come with E.L. Stratton, only the Goodrich family remains. Lloyd Goodrich lives on and farms his grandfather’ farm. Efren Renteria and his son Seledonio were the last farmers in Loving County who depended solely on farming for a living. Seledonio’s son, Joe, is now County Commissioner of Precinct 2.
Oil was discovered about 1 mile east of the present town of Mentone in the mid-1920. The oil boom was on, bringing in more people. A petition was again circulated to organize a separate county and was again approved. The county was reorganized on May 14, 1931. The Porterville post office, hotel and the school-church house were moved 1 mile northeast to the new town of Mentone. A larger brick building was built for a school in 1935. The town had several businesses during that time including a hotel named for James J. Wheat, Sr. who pioneered the oil industry in Loving County. All that remains of the buildings moved from Porterville to Mentone is the school-church house. It has been awarded a State Historical Medallion as being the oldest public building in the county. Because the county was deeply in debt in those early days, the commissioners voted funding warrants or script to be used to pay off the indebtedness. The commissioners received $5.00 in script per meeting with all their other work being done for “gratis”. During the time they were working for no pay, they built a gravel road to the county line toward Wink. The sand was so bad the oil field supply trucks could not get through at times. Loving County has paid off all its indebtedness and is solvent.
When the School-Church Building received the historical medallion in the early 60's it was in a bad state of repair. Ellen Goodrich was chairman of the historical committee when the Rondo Mills 4-H Club under the leadership of Punk and Mary Belle Jones offered to have a Rodeo Fun Day and Bar-B-Q at their residence with the proceeds going to the restoration of the building.
There were calf, steer and bull riding events, barrel racing horseback and footback, pole bending and flag races and roping events. The entry fees were 10 cents for ages 18 and under and 1 dollar for adults. Range stock was donated by local ranchers. Ellen bar-b-qed the beef that Punk donated and the ladies of the community furnished the beans and potato salad etc. With the money raised at the first Rodeo Fun Day repairs on the building were started, but it was not enough to finish. Lloyd Goodrich loaned, interest free, the money to finish what had been started. The Rodeo Fun Days were continued in the same manner for the next few years until Lloyd was paid and the event out grew the Jones residence.
Loving County now has a very nice rodeo arena thanks to Royce Creager who made arrangements with Ford Chapman to lease acreage to the 4-H club for 15 years at 1.00 per year to build a rodeo arena. Royce got donations of pipe from oil companies in the area, which he gathered and hauled to Mentone with the help of Edna Clayton Dewees. Labor for welding, post hole digging, etc was donated by Tom and John Erskin, John, Alan and Mark Haley, Punk and Skeet Jones, Nick Elliott, Grady Harding and others. Tom Linebery donated the money to buy the bull wire. Royce purchased the visitor stands from the Crane football field and Elmer Bechtel moved them to Mentone for the cost of the fuel and pay for the truck drivers. The lights were purchased from Odessa College Barrett Stadium. The light poles were donated by John and Bessie Mitchell. When the 15 year lease expired, Royce bought the Ford Chapman land donating the arena acreage to the county.
During the time Ellen Goodrich was Chairman of the historical committee in the 60's the committee got the Texas Highway Department to build a road side park just outside of Mentone for the Historical Monument to the Goodnight Loving Cattle Trail. The Highway Department said the acreage for the park had to be deeded to the Texas Highway Department and fenced before they would consider building a park. Ford Chapman deeded the land for the park, Punk Jones and his three sons, Skeet, Tom and Richard furnished the fencing.
The Loving County Independent School District was formed in 1931. In the fall of 1942 the junior high and high school students were sent to Pecos to school, leaving grades 1 through 6 in the LCISD. Then in the fall of 1961 these Junior high and high school students were sent to the Wink ISD. The Loving County Independent School District ceased to exist when an election was held in 1978 to consolidate with the Wink ISD forming the Wink-Loving ISD. Now all the children are bussed to Wink to attend school.
The first woman to be elected Sheriff in the State of Texas was Edna Clayton. She was elected Sheriff Tax Assessor-Collector of Loving County in 1944, taking office January 1, 1945. She later served 6 terms as County and District Clerk. After the death of her husband, George Clayton, Edna married Laurence Dewees. Edna’s daughter, Jeri Ann Blair, was a county commissioner and is now County Treasurer.
Donald C. “Don” Creager, a former county commissioner is, at present, County Judge. His father, Earl O. Creager, was county judge in the 1950's and later his mother, Elsie, was a Justice of the Peace. Don’s brother, Royce Creager is Commissioner Precinct 4. Don’s son-in-law, Dickie Putnam, is Sheriff Tax Assessor-Collector. Dickie’s step-son, Vern Jones is County constable. Barbara Creager, wife of Royce, is the unofficial and tireless Ambassador for Loving County.
Elgin R. “Punk” Jones (no relation to Vern Jones) arrived in the county with his family in March of 1952 working for Sinclair Oil & Gas. In 1964 he quit Sinclair and went to work for Herman Lindley and ran for Sheriff Tax Assessor-Collector. He did not run for an 8th term, retiring January 1, 1993 to ranch full time. His wife, Mary Belle Jones, Chief Appraiser for the Tax Appraisal District, retired at the same time. After Punk was in office 22 years the county hired a full-time deputy making Punk the first sheriff to have that luxury. Dickie Putnam is the first sheriff to have that luxury from the start of his term. Punk’s son, Skeet is commissioner of Precinct 3.
Nothing written about Loving County would be complete without mentioning Newt Keen, a cowboy who bought a cafe in Mentone in the 60's. Keen’s Cafe became the place to go in this area. The reason was that Newt was very entertaining as well as serving up a delicious hamburger. During the Gas Boom in the 70's and early 80's Newt’s was a busy place. It was also a very busy time for the Sheriff. The day the gas well on the Brunson Ranch caught fire was especially busy and Newt had been celebrating the fire along with the rest. Someone came by Newt’s inviting him to go out to the fire. It was mid afternoon when the rig shifts were changing, the place filled up with crews coming in and those going out, just when Newt was trying to close up to go to the fire. As he was waiting on customers he was also emptying the cash register into a money sack. When he got in that night he called Punk saying that his money sack was missing and that someone on the crews must have picked it up from off the counter before he could take it to the back and lock it up. Punk spent most of the night going to the rigs questioning the crews. He didn’t find the money sack. Early the next morning, Newt came into the sheriff’s office saying, “I’m sorry, Punk, I found the money sack in the freezer where I probably threw it when I left yesterday”. Punk said, “Well, Newt, there is nothing wrong with cold cash”. Newt isn’t with us any longer, he passed on in 1996.
As with most of West Texas, Loving County’s economy is based on the production of oil and gas and cattle raising. We spend a lot of time praying for rain and good prices for cattle, oil and gas and thanking God for his goodness.