- The Washington Times - Monday, May 28, 2007

MENTONE, Texas

On paper, life in Loving County is idyllic. There is no poverty, little or no crime, folks make plenty of money to live comfortably in the rural area and the daily commute is shorter than the national average.

“The last [criminal] trial was in the ‘80s,” Sheriff Billy Hopper said after taking a few minutes to dredge up the memory.

But if you live in Loving County and need a gallon of milk, or are hoping to use a credit card to gas up the car, it’s a 23-mile trek to Pecos. For anything more elaborate, Carlsbad, N.M., is 75 miles away.

Totally worth it, say folks who live in the nation’s least populated county — the 2006 Census estimates just 60 residents, though locals insist their head count is closer to 80.

“It’s just away from all of the … people,” Sheriff Hopper said recently as he sat in his one-room sheriff’s office inside the county courthouse. “I can walk out of my house at night, and I can tell you what’s happening within a mile of here. I can tell you which pump jack has a loose belt.”

Nothing much happens in Loving County, which sprawls over 673 square miles — about the same size as Houston with its 2 million people. But outside a 10-mile radius of Mentone, all a visitor will find is brown prairie.

Mentone, the county seat about 120 miles southwest of Midland, is dotted with a few buildings. It sits just below the New Mexico line off a two-lane highway trafficked mostly by oil field workers. The town was once bustling with a few restaurants and a hotel, but the population has been on the decline for more than 60 years.

“A lot of people left during the war,” Sheriff Hopper said. “The roads got better, and you didn’t have to live here.”

Before World War II, it made sense for oil field workers to live in Mentone so the drive over unpaved roads would be shorter than from the larger towns such as Pecos. Today there are about 30 miles of paved roads, including the rugged two-lane state highway connecting Mentone to a string of other small towns to the east and to a two-lane U.S. highway on the western edge of the county.

Lacking a major highway or interstate, Mentone isn’t really on the way to anywhere except the lucrative oil fields. The community is home to only the gas station and the Boot Track Cafe, which is open just half the day.

Sheriff Hopper and a single deputy patrol the lonely county, their days filled mostly with petty thefts from unattended oil rigs.

For the few locals, the average income is about $24,000, according to the 2000 census. With property taxes hovering at about $25 an acre, that makes finding affordable housing an easy task. No one in the wide-open area lives in poverty.

Many of the problems that come with larger communities haven’t invaded the county, but then, neither has diversity.

The average Loving resident is about 45 and white. More than half are married and most have graduated from high school, but fewer than five have a college degree.

Most blame the steady population drop on the lack of jobs. For those who have stayed, about the only career options are in ranching or the oil industry. Most oil field workers are contractors who don’t live in the county.

With the people went some services, including the county’s school. Sheriff Hopper was the last high school student to attend classes locally.

“In the fall of 1951, there were eight of us,” Sheriff Hopper recalled. By Christmas, he was alone. He finished his studies in Pecos and now the few school-age children in town commute about 30 miles each way to neighboring Wink.

Sheriff Hopper left, too, for a time. He joined the Air Force in 1959 — he was the only eligible draftee in the county and didn’t want to be an Army soldier — and later took a job as an oil contractor and worked all over the world.

He came back in the 1980s and has no plans to leave.

“I’ve lived in London, I’ve lived in Singapore, I’ve lived in New Orleans, Houston, Madrid and Johannesburg, but seldom did I know three people down the road,” Sheriff Hopper said. “There is nothing more lonely than living in a town with 4 million or 5 million people and not knowing anyone.”

In Loving County, not only does everyone know each other — and their business — most folks are related. In a crisis, everyone helps.

“When my home burned down in 1979, it took me four hours to open all the gifts,” said Barbara Creager, a native New Zealander who has lived in the area since the early 1970s.

When Opal Cook died in April at age 76, everyone made plans to attend her funeral in Pecos — including the people from the county offices, which closed for the observance.

“We all come together as a family,” said Brenda Wildman, who lives in Waco these days but often visits Loving County and still owns property there.

Jaime Acker Jones, a 43-year-old oil field contractor who lives just down the highway from Mentone’s primary four-corner intersection, said people live here because it’s not crowded or overrun with gangs or drug problems. In fact, gangs are nonexistent.

“If you’re raising kids, it’s great,” Mrs. Jones said. “They stay out of trouble here.”

With only about a dozen children, the few teenagers are hard-pressed to get away with much since everyone knows their parents, Mrs. Jones said.

If pressed, Mrs. Jones can muster one gripe about her rural home: It’s too close to the highway — her front porch sits about 50 yards from the road.

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