Texas never does things by halves. Not only does it boast by far the most counties of any of the 50 states (259) but it also boasts the county with by far the smallest population in the whole US.
The most populous county in Texas is Harris which has a population of 4 336 853.
Compare this to Loving County (Population 82 at last census in 2010). The capital of Loving is Mentone (Population 19), a tiny community with few notable buildings apart from a fairly imposing courthouse and one restaurant, the Boot Track. The Boot Track does not accept credit cards, possibly because it’s so easy to disappear into the sunset here leaving them to pick up the tab. The juke box was lost or broken some years back so now you can enjoy your meal while chatting to locals with the gentle bubbling of the deep fryer in the background.
Mentone is the second smallest county seat in the entire US with only Gann Valley, South Dakota having fewer people.
Loving County was named after cattle rancher Oliver Loving who developed the Loving-Goodnight Trail but was mortally injured in a skirmish with a band of Comanche in 1867. The wounded rancher held off his attackers for two more days before escaping up the Pecos River where travellers found him and took him to Fort Sumner, over a hundred miles away. He died there of shock when the doctor, who evidently didn’t have much of a compassionate bedside manner and should have told him first, began sawing off his arm which had become gangrenous.
The county was initially organized in 1893, but lost its status a few years later due to irregularities. At that time only three people were registered as living in the district yet 83 people signed the request for organization as a county. The county officials subsequently did a disappearing act. It was finally re-established as a county in 1931.
In 1921, oil was discovered in the region and this attracted more folk to this otherwise flat, arid and drab county. The population reached a peak of 600 in 1933 but there followed a gradual decline as the wells dried up, although a good number of them are still functional today.
In its heyday, Mentone had its own newspaper 9 the Mentone Monitor) as well as five cafes, five gas stations (petrol stations to non-Americans), two drugstores, two barbershops, two hotels, two recreation halls, a dance hall, a dry cleaner and a machine shop.
Today, apart from the courthouse it has a gas station, post office and two stop signs.
A minister from out of town visits every Saturday to hold an interdenominational church service in the deserted schoolhouse, oldest building in the county.
There are no hospitals, cemeteries, banks, grocery stores, doctors or lawyers in Mentone.
The population is too small to support its own school district since 1972 when enrolment of school pupils had fallen to just two. Schoolchildren catch a bus which takes them just over 30 km to school in the next county.
The county covers a total area of 1750 square km (677 square miles).
The population density is around 0.05 people per square kilometre – the lowest population density of any county outside of Alaska – making for plenty of nothingness.
More than a third of the county’s work force is employed by the county. An official county needs to support various officials, including a sheriff, county judge, commissioner, treasurer, postmaster or postmistress, county clerk and tax assessor. 40% of taxes collected are budgeted to pay county salaries. One person may hold two or more of these positions simultaneously. Sometimes one or two families may hold all the positions of importance.
It was only in 1988 that the county could ensure potable water to residents when a new well was dug, supplying underground water to a storage tank near the courthouse. Previously water had to be “imported” from 37 km away, as the local water from the Pecos River has such a high mineral content that it can kill grass and corrode the pipes of any toilet, dishwasher or sink in about a year!
Cattle outnumber humans, as ranching is one of the major occupations in the county. Because there are so few people, the county has the highest per capita income of all Texas counties.
This was the first county in Texas to elect a female sheriff, Edna Reed Clayton Dewees, who served from 1945 to 1948. She was only 24 when she became sheriff. Quite an achievement for macho and conservative rural Texas, and shows the independent nature of the residents of Loving.
She made only two arrests during her entire tenure as sheriff, and never carried a firearm. At the time she served as sheriff the courthouse had no air conditioning, but was the only building in the whole county with a telephone.
She returned to county public service in 1960 and served as the county clerk until her retirement in 1986, after which she continued to reside in Loving County, keeping close contact with her five children until her death in 2009.
The current sheriff doesn’t have a great deal of work to do in a county with a handful of people who know one another by name and in many cases, related by family. His life could hardly be more different or less stressful that of an NYPD officer on the beat!
The last “organized crime spree” was in 2005 when three independently minded men fraudulently tried to buy land in the area to establish a Free Town Project and import their followers to outvote the residents to take over and run a community with their own rules. Their “wanted by the Texas Rangers” posters still adorn the sheriff’s office so should they ever wish to return to the area they face misdemeanour charges. It’s doubtful they will return to Texas again if they value their freedom.
Texas domicile laws enable people to cast votes if they can claim land ownership, so if you can claim an old isolated shack in the county as your own, you can vote. The votes cast in an election generally far exceed the number of people living in the county. People from outside the county, but who have ties to it, keep the county as their voting address and send absentee votes to ensure extra votes so their family member or friend can be elected as sheriff or whatever other position they are going for.
If you want a place with a low crime rate but very little else apart from oil and gas wells, abandoned shanties, arid bush and brilliant sunsets, Loving is the place to be.
The current county clerk, who once lived in Houston, reports that she can get to the neighbouring town of Pecos to buy her bread and milk in quicker time than it took her to get to her local shopping mall in Texas’s largest city.
Despite its hardships and isolation the residents of Loving County are proud to call it home and not planning on leaving anytime soon.