The lack of both a harbor and the natural crossroads that brought trade and prosperity to other colonial settlements did not keep this tiny Carroll County town from flourishing after William Winchester laid it out in 45 lots in 1764.

Now, businessmen, officials and planners are taking heart from history as they strive to keep town and county economies growing despite competition from suburban shopping malls and discouraging national economic trends.

They have reasons to be optimistic.

Unemployment is below 7 percent, many local businesses have expanded or at least maintained healthy sales records, the commercial center is in the midst of an ambitious rejuvenation program and small farms are flourishing in the rolling, 456-square-mile county just south of the Mason-Dixon line and west of Baltimore.

Even two industries that are suffering nationally--car sales and real estate--appear to be holding their own here. Cadillacs still outsell lower priced automobiles, and at least one real estate saleswoman reports a better year in 1981 than 1980.

The picture can't be painted entirely in shades of rose, however. There are some foreboding indicators, the most important probably being an increase in the delinquency rate on business loans at Westminster Bank and Trust Co.

Chairman John Schaeffer said the community definitely feels the effects of a sharp downturn in new construction and real estate transactions. But he says the "basic economy is still strong due to diversified employment" in this essentially bedroom community 75 driving minutes north of Washington.

He also mentioned consistent strength in area-wide dairy and crop farming and an especially good corn crop this year.

The farms that help stabilize the county's finances are threatened by creeping suburbanization, which explains at least some of the increase in real estate sales, but the county has established an agricultural preservation program to restrict future residential development.

Ice cream shopkeeper Terry Burke said his Main Street business in Westminster is "doing fine," but he admitted that business generally is "pulling in its horns, doing more creative marketing and concentating on low-price items that sell day in and day out."

Likewise, Ellen Wallis said she sees customers doing "more looking and talking and less impulse buying" in her new gift shop. But she says a diversification in greeting cards and the encouragement of more walk-in traffic from a new high-rise apartment for senior citizens and a new library, both in the center of town, has helped her and partner Jo Anne Kreider increase sales.

Business failures so far have been more than matched by successes. The former Endicott-Johnson store in the 1896-vintage, three-story Babylon building has been vacated recently, but the J. C. Penney department store on Main Street reported business up 20 percent over 1980. Company officials credit increased advertising and longer store hours.

The Random House book distribution center, which already employs 750 persons, is embarked on its third expansion in 12 years. Last year, more than 72 million books were shipped from the publisher's warehouse on 9.5 town acres that include a park named for the late author Bennett Cerf.

John F. Gambatese, who heads the distribution center, echoed fellow local businessmen when he cited an ample labor force and people willing to do "a day's work for a day's wage" as reasons for the center's continued growth. He said the late Bennett Cerf and other Random House executives chose Westminster for its convenience to New York City, its community facilities and available financing aid from revenue bonds.

Still on an optimistic note, Jos. A. Bank Clothiers renovated a former clothing company plant in tiny Hampstead, northeast of Westminster and near the Baltimore County line. The company is gearing up to produce 2,000 coats and 1,000 skirts a week at its 750-employe facility.

Carroll County's largest employer, Black & Decker, is also located in Hampstead, where about 2,800 employes manufacture its power tools.

The new era of growth and industry has also seen an expansion at Maple Grove Wood Products, Inc., which manufactures wood for whiskey barrels. Many of the barrels manufactured in Carroll County are shipped to Japan, where whiskey is made and then exported.

Also, a business development group is seeking small firms to occupy plants in the 100-acre Air Business Center located north of town near a relocated airport with more than a hundred private planes in residence.

Other major employers in the county are the Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville, Londontown Corp. (which makes London Fog apparel) in Eldersburg, the county general hospital in Westminster, Cambridge Rubber Co. in Taneytown, Gould (electronics) Inc. in Finksburg and Westminster and Westinghouse in Sykesville.

The area also gets significant impetus, economically and culturally, from Western Maryland College, which sits on a hill overlooking the north end of Main Street.

Keeping this community prosperous and growing at a pace that maintains its pleasant, small-town-rural-county appeal is the challenge facing officials like planner John Donofrio and county Economic Development Director Richard Story.

Donofrio, whom shopkeeper Wallis described as "a dreamer who is also a doer," is responsible for launching Westminster's ambitious midtown rejuvenation project.

Though he has some early results to show for several years of work in the business district, Donofrio has yet to achieve his major goal--a rebuilding of the former Sherwood distillery into a Sherwood Square mall, with shops and a hotel. He envisions a mini-version of San Francisco's Ghiardelli Square or Cross Keys in Baltimore, but needs more financing to make that vision a reality.

Donofrio started modestly with restoration of Locust Lane shops that have an open-lot window to Main Street and with the new library. Meanwhile, the town put its utility wires underground and improved the Main Street access and off-street parking. Many Main Street storefronts shed their post-World War II aluminum facades to return to original, more appealing fronts.

Donofrio, who has more energy, savvy and foresight than available cash, remains undaunted by the relatively slow pace of redevelopment around Main and Railway streets (a few freight trains rumble through the center of town each week).

And he is pleased that the work done so far, especially the restored shop facades, enhances the town's historic atmosphere. As an example of that tradition, Longwell mansion, a lovely white landmark that sits on a hill a block back of Main Street, serves as city hall. A glossy new book, "The Building of Westminster in Maryland" by Christopher Weeks, highlights 200 historic sites and a tradition of basically German immigration.

As population increases, so will the need for housing and the pressure on Carroll County's farmers to sell valuable real estate to developers.

Despite an admittedly depressed real estate market, realtor Ginny Porter said she's doing better this year than in 1980. Existing houses are selling faster than new homes, she said, and sales are strongest at the extremes of the price range, those homes priced over $100,000 or under $60,000. Porter said a "super nice" house in Carroll County might sell for $130,000.

To restrict future residential development of the county's fine farms, an agricultural preservation program has been established.

Under the program, easements are sold for about $800 an acre. A landowner needing cash or an estate needing money for taxes gets paid for a 25-year embargo on any residential development above one lot per 20 acres.

So far, 2,772 acres of easement have been bought under the state program and applications have been submitted on 4,306 acres.

More than half of the county's 290,000 acres--188,000--are occupied by 1,234 farms. The selling price for top farms ranges from $3,000 to $4,000 an acre.

Edward Beeler, publisher of the thriving Carroll County Times, commented that his area lags in feeling economic cycles and thus is less sensitive to up and down trends.

A native of Oregon and a former news executive in the San Diego area, Beeler came to Westminster three years ago. Since then he has boosted circulation to 17,000 and increased publication of the former weekly to five days a week.

He has also put the newspaper, which is delivered in the morning, into a modern one-story building. The plant also publishes the daily Diamond student newspaper for the University of Maryland.

How does the straight-talking publisher like Westminster? "Both my family and I had some reservations, but they vanished quickly," he said. "We like the good life here, and the newspaper has been doing well too. People care about this town."