Loving County, the smallest county in the Permian Basin of West Texas, is bounded on the east by Winkler County, on the south by Ward County, on the west by the Pecos River and Reeves County, and on the north by Eddy and Lea counties, New Mexico. The center of the county lies at 31°50' north latitude and 103°35' west longitude. Mentone, the county seat and only town in the county, is located in its southwestern corner seventy-five miles west of Odessa. Loving County consists of 671 square miles of flat desert terrain with a few low-rolling hills stretching over calichified bedrock and wash deposits of pebbles, gravel, and sand. The soils of the county-loams, chalk, clays, and sands-support desert shrubs, cacti, range grasses, and salt cedars along the river. Wildlife includes waterfowl, quail, deer, badgers, javelinas, rabbits, bobcats, coyotes, armadillos, skunks, opossums, raccoons, rattlesnakes, killifish, brine shrimp, and turtles. Elevations vary from 2,686 to 3,311 feet above sea level. Temperatures vary from an average low of 29° F in January to an average high of 96° in July. The growing season lasts 222 days. Rainfall averages just over ten inches. The county has an immature drainage system made up of hundreds of playas and dry draws that feed into the Pecos only after heavy rainfall. In 1936 Red Bluff Dam was built across the Pecos on the Texas-New Mexico boundary for irrigation and recreation. Water from the Pecos, however, is too saline for drinking, so the 100 residents of the county haul water from a community tank.
In the prehistoric era, springs of pure water dotted the landscape and supported nomadic hunters and their prey. Antonio de Espejo crossed the area in 1583, fording the then-mighty Pecos at great risk. In 1854 Capt. John Pope surveyed the area for a railroad route. Convinced that he could drill artesian wells there, he returned in 1855 and located Pope's Camp fifteen miles east of the mouth of Delaware Creek in northwestern Loving County. After three years of unsuccessful attempts, he and his men abandoned the camp. The Butterfield Overland Mail ran a stage station at Pope's Camp from 1858 until 1861. From 1837 to 1874 the area of Loving County was part of the Bexar land district. In 1874 the Texas legislature separated Tom Green County from the Bexar District. In 1887 Loving County was separated from Tom Green County, but it remained attached to Reeves County for judicial purposes. It was named for Oliver Loving, an early Texas cattleman who was mortally wounded by Indians on the Pecos in the area of the county as he rode in advance of his herd in 1866. Loving County is the only Texas county to be organized twice. The first organization appears to have been a scheme to defraud on the part of the organizers. Early in 1893 six men from Denver, Colorado, organized the Loving Canal and Irrigation Company of Mentone, Texas, with the stated purpose of migrating to isolated Loving County and constructing an irrigation canal from the Pecos to surrounding farmland. Although the 1890 United States census reported a population of only three in Loving County, on June 13, 1893, the organizers of the canal company filed a petition with the Reeves County Commissioners Court signed by 150 allegedly qualified voters who requested separate organization for Loving County. The court approved the petition and allowed the organization of the county. A county election was held on July 8, 1893, eighty-three votes were reported, and county organization was approved. Mentone, a town laid out by the company organizers twelve miles north of the present Mentone, was designated the county seat. Irrigation company organizers and several nonresidents were elected to county offices.
Subsequently, several families came to live in or near Mentone, probably intending to buy irrigated farmland. A general store and several adobe houses were built there. The Loving County Commissioners Court voted to issue bonds valued at $6,000 to build a courthouse in Mentone. Although construction began, the building was never finished. In August 1893 the Pecos flooded and destroyed the work that had been done on the irrigation project. With no hope for crop harvests, the few settlers left the area. Although the company organizers failed at promotion of irrigated land, they retained control of county government. On September 6, 1893, the county commissioners reportedly appointed County Judge J. J. Combs as agent of the county to locate and acquire patents for county public school lands. Combs chose four leagues in Dawson and Gaines counties, and the county received the patents on February 9, 1894. The commissioners' court authorized Combs to sell the four leagues on February 19, 1894, and he sold them two days later. He conveyed one tract, League 271, to W. R. Fowler in exchange for a promissory note in the amount of $3,099.60, due five years later.
In the spring of 1894 H. C. Withers and A. H. Randolph made a trip to Loving County to investigate reports of the illegal county organization for the firm of W. H. Abrams of New York, which represented a large Loving County landowner. They found three people in Mentone. When Withers asked to examine the tax-levy records, sheriff and tax collector W. A. Hunter told him that county clerk R. G. Munn had taken the records to Denver. Loving County reportedly held a second election of county officials on November 8, 1894, and the organizers and nonresidents were reelected to office. There is evidence that neither of the Loving County elections was legitimate. By 1897 the county officials fled the area. Taxes were not collected for 1893 and 1894 and had not been assessed or collected for 1895 and 1896. County government was chaotic, and the state legislature deorganized Loving County on May 12, 1897, reattaching it to Reeves County. The Reeves County Commissioners Court taxed Loving County landowners to pay off the county debt.
After Mentone was abandoned in 1897, no town existed in Loving County. The 1900 census reported a county population of eleven females and twenty-two males, all white. By 1910 the population grew to 248 Whites and one Black, after a legitimate land and irrigation promotion established a settlement, called Juanita, in the southwestern corner of the county. The settlement, which was renamed Porterville in 1910, had a post office, several businesses, and the first school and church in the county. Although Juanita had an estimated population of 100 in 1909, a drought, compounded by the failure of irrigation systems, reduced that number to sixty by 1914.
Although several irrigation projects were attempted at the end of the nineteenth century and in the first two decades of the twentieth, successful agribusiness in the county was restricted to ranching. In 1887 three ranches ran 12,100 cattle valued at $96,800 in Loving County. By 1900 the total value of livestock was reported at $568,406. The Johnson brothers, Sid Kyle, and Young Bell ranched on large spreads in the county from 1898 to 1911. The drought of 1910 decreased cattle holdings. New ranchers moved to the county by 1912, including John Z. Means of Jeff Davis County, who owned thirty-five sections of Loving County by 1915. The largest landowner from 1915 to 1920 was the Texas and Pacific Railway, which owned 145 sections. Means, the railroad, and some smaller landowners hired foremen to manage the land and did not settle in the county. The census of 1920 reported fifty-one men and thirty-one women, all white, living in the county. Only one of the thirteen principal landowners listed between 1920 and 1926 gave his address as Loving County. By 1969 only 26.7 percent of Loving County landowners lived on their land.
Early in 1921 J. J. Wheat and Bladen Ramsey organized the Toyah-Bell Oil Company and leased acreage for drilling on the Russell Ranch. The company spudded the Russell No.1 in the summer and brought in the first producer of the county late in 1921. Although production from this well was short-lived, real commercial production was found in the Pecos Valley Petroleum Company Wheat No.1 on September 1, 1925. This well led to the development of the Wheat oilfield, which attained its maximum production in 1931 with 1,233,801 barrels, and to the discovery of other fields. Oil activity in the county increased the population to 195–76 women and 119 men, all white-by 1930. The larger population produced the town of Ramsey and led to the second organization of Loving County in 1931. Ramsey was renamed Mentone and became the county seat. By 1933 several oil camps were built in the county, and the population reached a record of 600. In 1939 Mentone reported a population of 150 and twelve businesses. The census of 1940 listed a county population of 282 whites and 3 Hispanics.
After the county was deorganized in 1897, the residents participated little in government. In the 1908 presidential election, three votes were cast-all for the Democratic candidate. No separate presidential returns were kept for the county from 1908 until 1924, when the majority of twelve votes again went to the Democratic candidate. From 1928 until 1952 the Democrats continued to carry the county vote. In the 1950s the voters of the county switched parties for Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1960 and 1964 they voted for John Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. The majority returned to the Republican party in 1968 and remained there through the 1988 election, when George H. W. Bush won.
In 1950 the residents numbered 225 Whites, one Black, and one Hispanic. In 1960 the county reported 216 Whites and ten Blacks. In 1970 the population had fallen to seventy-three, all white. The county closed its school system in 1972 because only two students were enrolled and its cost was $146,000 a year; the students were transferred to Winkler County. In 1980 there were fifty-nine whites and thirty-two Hispanics in the county; the median age was 45.3 years. Fifty residents had received four years of high school, and there were four college graduates. At the end of 1989 the estimated population increased slightly to 100, but prospects for future development remained slim. In the summer of 1988 the county piped drinking water to a 500-gallon tank in Mentone for use by residents. Loving County and Mentone remained generally undeveloped because the land was mostly held by absentee owners, because good water was scarce, because cattle grazing made the best use of the unimproved arid surface, and because oil and gas income from the subsurface obviated the need for highly productive surface use. As of 2014, the population of the county was 86. About 78.9 percent was Anglo and 17.9 percent Hispanic. At the end of the 1980s Loving County had no economic farming or manufacturing. The economy was based on oil and gas production; in 1986 crude oil production was more than 1.7 million barrels, gas-well gas totaled 42.3 billion cubic feet, and casinghead gas production was 3.9 billion cubic feet. Although petroleum gave the small population of Loving County the highest per-capita income of all United States counties ($34,173), the area was isolated and undeveloped.