1 Cafe, 1 Gas Station and 2 Roads: America's Emptiest County
Published: February 25, 2006
New York Times

How empty is Loving County?

So empty that when Sheriff Billy Burt Hopper ran for office in 2004, he and his opponent attended each other's campaign barbecues. So empty that it can't sustain two political parties: Republicans and Democrats all call themselves Democrats and vote in a single primary.

So empty that it has trouble seating 12 jurors who are not related to a defendant. (Not that there is much crime, although -- or maybe because -- Sheriff Hopper patrols in a pickup with two shotguns and an AK-47.) So empty that the jail was moved to Pecos in Reeves County, 26 miles away, in 1994.

In fact, this is the emptiest county seat of the emptiest county in the country.

At last count (by Sheriff Hopper toting it up in his head), 16 people make Mentone their home and 55 more are spread throughout the rest of Loving County's 645 square miles of parched, salty West Texas grassland and rattlesnakes -- about one person for every nine square miles.

But Loving County, east of the Pecos River just below New Mexico, is blessed with mineral riches: 360 producing gas and oil wells and 18 more being drilled, creating an enviable problem for the county -- forcing it to keep lowering its tax rate.

Yet it's modest enough, as a plaque outside the courthouse confesses: ''Mentone has no water system (water is hauled in) nor does it have a bank, doctor, hospital, newspaper, lawyer, civic club or cemetery.''

And since Mentone is the only town, neither does Loving County.

What it does have is the Boot Track Café (open mornings), a post office, a gas station and the yellow Deco two-story courthouse. There are two roads. There is no operating church, although the county's oldest building, a 1910 schoolhouse, is open for nondenominational worship. Seven children ride a school bus 33 miles to Wink in the next county.

''When I was little I couldn't wait to leave,'' said Beverly Hanson, the county clerk. Then, she said, ''I went to see the bright lights'' -- she became an apartment manager in Dallas -- got married and divorced and happily returned home. ''I knew I was safe here,'' she said.

Loving County may be empty all right. But not so empty that it escapes the burden of history: three of its sons have fought in Iraq. And it landed $30,000 in antiterrorism funds from the Department of Homeland Security to upgrade its emergency radio system.

Loving County never had an easy time of it. It is the only Texas county to have been organized twice. It was named for Oliver Loving, a trail-blazing cattleman who drove Texas herds to Illinois before the Civil War; he was later shot by Indians and, according to one story, crawled five miles chewing on a kid glove for food before eventually succumbing to gangrene. He appears as Augustus McCrae in Larry McMurtry's novel ''Lonesome Dove.''

With only three people on record as living in Mentone somehow 83 votes were cast to organize the county in 1893. But within a few years, the county officials had fled the area. The county was dissolved in 1897 and not reorganized until 1931.

Sheriff Hopper's forebears settled in Loving County in 1906. He was born in Odessa and arrived in Mentone as a 1-year old in 1938. The town was booming then, he said, with 300 people and four restaurants, three gas stations, a hotel and a bowling alley. But residents started moving away during World War II.

Mr. Hopper, a former Air Force nuclear weapons technician, became the deputy sheriff in 1999 and ran for sheriff in 2004 against a former sheriff's son. The race went down to the wire, ending in a tie, 41 to 41; Mr. Hopper won the runoff, 51 to 38.

Curiously, both vote totals exceeded the entire population of Loving County, put at 67 by the census in 2000. (In 2004, the Census Bureau estimated the population at 52, while Sheriff Hopper, after a house-to-house count, puts it now at 71).

Easily explainable, the sheriff said. Election time brings family members flocking in from afar or sending in absentee ballots. They may not live here year-round, he said, but as long as they ''intend'' to make it their home they may keep Loving County as their voting address to swing elections to relatives or friends and defeat tax-raising bond-issues.

But others had caught on to the system, too.

The newly elected sheriff had barely pinned on his star in January 2005, he recalled, when his phone rang with an old-fashioned warning: ''You don't know it, but you're in trouble.'' A group was planning a takeover of the county, said the caller, a woman in Arizona who promised to send him some information by e-mail. The material described the plans of a Libertarian faction in its own words ''to win most of the elected offices in the county administration'' and ''restore to freedom'' Loving County. The blueprint, called ''Restoring Loving County,'' said that land was hard to come by but that a ranch had been split up and members were in the process of buying sections.

''The people who are living there will be able to register to vote,'' it said. ''They must swear that they intend to make Loving their home.''

The goal, said an e-mail message attributed to a group member, was to move in enough Libertarians ''to control the local government and remove oppressive regulations (such as planning and zoning, and building code requirements) and stop enforcement of laws prohibiting victimless acts among consenting adults such as dueling, gambling, incest, price-gouging, cannibalism and drug handling.''

Leading the effort, the material showed, was Lawrence Edward Pendarvis, a computer analyst from Brandon, Fla., and operator of a Philippine mail-order-bride Web site who has run into a storm of opposition for trying to establish a similar ''Free State Project'' in Grafton, N.H. He was convicted in Florida in 1997 of downloading child pornography, but the charges were overturned on appeal due to a prosecutorial error.

Days after he received the material, Sheriff Hopper said, Mr. Pendarvis and two other Libertarians, Bobby Y. Emory and Don B. Duncan, showed up to look for land and last fall, claiming they had bought property on eBay, filed voter-registration forms. But, the sheriff said, after checking deeds at the county courthouse, he talked to the presumed sellers, who were in California, and was told the property had been sold to other buyers. He and the Texas ranger in Fort Stockton, 75 miles away, then filed misdemeanor charges against the three men, who had left the state.

''We need people, we need people bad, don't get me wrong,'' said Sheriff Hopper, 68, who is also the registrar of voters, tax assessor and collector. ''But we don't need that deal.''

Mr. Pendarvis, reached in Florida, said that his group had a canceled check that proved they had properly bought the 126 acres for $30,000 and that they were operating within the law. Sheriff Hopper said even though the charge was only a misdemeanor, the three men faced arrest if they showed up in Loving County. ''We're letting them know we know what they're up to,'' he said.

Now pictures of the three decorate a poster on the sheriff's door at the Loving County Courthouse under the timeworn Wild West legend: ''Wanted by the Texas Rangers.''