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State's First Female Sheriff


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January 30, 2000

Small West Texas town produced state’s first female sheriff

By Zane Toombs
Special to the Odessa American

MENTONE — Long before fears of Y2K started, residents in the tiny West Texas hamlet of Mentone already were storing drinking water along with spare food and other essentials of life as a hedge against some unexpected crisis.

A trip to the ‘neighborhood’ grocer or pharmacist ‘down the street’ involves driving 30 miles to Kermit or Pecos.

Mentone (population 15) happens to be the county seat of Loving County, which in round numbers may reach 70 occupants. This assures a distinction of being the most sparsely populated county in Texas. A motorist maintaining a steady 30-mph pace between city limit boundary signs can be across these limits in about one minute. Only a few amenities of everyday life still are in place, notably the town’s only cafe, which faces a gas station across the road.

Water, or the lack thereof, always has presented this locale with a major problem. Simply stated, Mentone town water is wet, which is about the best to be said for a liquid that normally is not considered for drinking purposes. Actually, this precious resource is abundant in underlying water deposits that occur throughout the area, including Mentone. Unfortunately, much of it is unsuited for drinking. There is no city water, because the community never has been incorporated. Hauling drinking water is a way of life here.

In later years, an oil-drilling rig discovered a large reservoir of underground water of better quality than found beneath Mentone. In the late 1980s, arrangements were made by the county to pump water from this source to a storage tank located a short distance from the courthouse. Distribution from this point is left to the users.

No surprise that from this backdrop of rugged, self-reliant individualism came the first elected female sheriff in Texas. Edna Reed Claton Dewees at age 24 assumed the role of law enforcer and tax assessor-collector in a field that previously had belonged to males only.

Dewees was born Sept. 5, 1921, in Gloster, Miss., moving to Texas at age one, and later graduated from Breckenridge High School in Stephens County. As a precursor of things to come, she served as deputy district clerk in that county. A varied working background followed, including lathe operator in a Fort Worth aircraft-manufacturing plant and stenographer-bookkeeper in the Special Service Office at Pecos Army Air Field before she moved to Mentone.

In 1944, Dewees, now 78, took a position as deputy in the tax office under incumbent sheriff Hardin Ross, who resigned a short time later for health purposes, and recommended that Dewees be appointed sheriff and tax assessor-collector. In January 1945, the commissioners court honored this request.

The next election found her running for the position, which she easily won in the July primaries, becoming the first elected female sheriff in Texas.

Dewees, who remained sheriff through 1947, said her job was "interesting" because there were more people in Mentone then, including major oil companies, many of which provided housing for employees in camps.

"It was much harder work because you went to work early in the morning and stayed late and worked six days a week," she said.

Dewees said during here tenure as sheriff that the community was focused on school and the social center, which held dances, birthday parties and potluck suppers. Record-keeping was harder because calculators were cumbersome and slow and carbon paper was used to prepare county records. The courthouse had the only phone in the county but did not have air conditioning.

Dewees said only two arrests were made during her term — one for a family altercation. This sheriff never wore sidearms or other defensive aids. "I knew everyone," she said.

In 1960, problems in the sheriff’s department prompted a return to duty as a deputy — an urgency had developed in the tax office requiring her expertise, namely preparation of tax rolls. After she completed that task, Dewees left public service, but returned in 1965 as county-district clerk, a position she held until 1986.Today, Dewees is far from being idle. She keeps close contact with her five children. Her daughter, Ann Blair, is Loving County treasurer. Dewees looks after her beloved cattle and reads. Her hillside ranch home provides sweeping views of rugged terrain, particularly mountains in the background.

Sunsets are described in glowing terms, matched only by colors of a setting sun dipping behind Guadalupe Peak, some 70 miles away. Dewees has led a full life in Mentone and prefers it to any other locale.

"When you first come here, you know, you don’t have enough money really to move, and then later after you make friends, and accumulate a little bit, you don’t want to go off and leave it."

That seems to be the prevailing mood of those who live in Mentone. Beverly Hanson, Loving County district-county clerk, said she has lived in Houston, Dallas and El Paso but prefers living in Mentone. Hanson, 52, was born in Pecos but has lived in Mentone off and on all of her life.

"I lived in Houston eight miles from the mall. On Saturday mornings it took two hours to get there. So I can be in Pecos for bread and milk an bread and be back home before someone in Houston can go across town."

Ann Blair, Dewees’ daughter, said self-reliance is important in such a sparsely populated area. "You do things on your own, you take care of your own needs, but if it gets to be too much, usually somebody in the community knows how to do that. I don’t think any of us feels we can’t ask anybody else to help us when we need it." Don Creager, county judge of Loving County, agreed. "We may have political spats and all, but you know if it comes to sickness and death and other things, functions and all, we all come together. "

Loving County Sheriff Richard Putnam said the county continues to have little or no crime, an occasional petty oilfield theft or some would-be hunter trespassing on to private ranch land — another plus for living conditions.

Some suggest Mentone is a town in name only. Charles Derrick, who with wife Regena operates the Boot Track Cafe, which occasionally presents little evidence of being open, may have unintentionally answered this by uttering one of his impromptu quips: "We may look like we’re closed but we’re not."


 

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