It's been a rough winter, climatically and economically, for this small county seat at the northern terminus of the Skyline Drive.

The unemployment rate has exceeded 10 percent despite the 1981 start-up of a $20 million E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. plant that produces paints for older cars and trucks. More than 250 persons are employed at the Du Pont facility, which operates on a round-the-clock schedule. However, production is still in the start-up stage in the sprawling plant occupying about 42 acres of a 180-acre rural site just north of Front Royal.

Meanwhile, Old Virginia Inc. recently closed its doors after years of producing tasty jams and jellies made from the fruit products that abound in this lush Shenandoah Valley region. During peak seasons, Old Virginia employed as many as 150 persons. But the business inexplicably declined in recent years.

The town's consistent bread-and-butter industry has been Avtex Fibers Inc., where employment usually ranges between 1,600 to 2,000. Manager Eldon Campbell said that production is "moving up a bit" after declining last year and "bottoming out" in December.

Rayon for tires and nonwoven products is produced at the big Avtex plant, which continues the town's silk-milling tradition. Members of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers of America at Avtex earn some of the area's highest wages. The plant, started in 1940 by American Viscose, now is owned by Avtex, which has headquarters in Valley Forge, Pa.

In addition to side effects of the nation-wide recession, Front Royal suffers annually at the hands of the winter climate that shuts off its booming tourist business. Promoting its image as the "gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains," Front Royal attracts many thousands of outdoor recreation-minded visitors every spring, summer and fall.

Although the town has fewer than 12,000 residents and is the seat of little (population 21,200) Warren County, there are more than a dozen motels with an aggregate 450 rooms for visitors attracted by the area's Shenandoah scenery, hiking, camping, fishing and sight-seeing opportunities. Not the least is the Skyline Caverns, a series of limestone caves noted for flower-like formations. There's also a Confederate museum in town and the nearby Thunderbird museum and archeological park, where the acreage along the South Fork of the Shenandoah River is still sifted for evidence of an earlier North American Indian civilization.

History is especially important to old-line Front Royal residents. They like to recall that Peter Lehew fled as a persecuted Huguenot to America in the 1750s and settled at the future site of Front Royal. He bought land, gave some to his sons and the family gave the village the Lehew name, which it kept until 1778.

That's when the town was incorporated as Front Royal, in remembrance of the colonial days when a giant oak (the Royal Tree of England) stood in the public square at the intersection of what now are Main and Chester streets.

When the local militia drilled in town, an exasperated sergeant reportedly coined this command: "Front the Royal Oak." That Revolutionary-era story apparently got wide retelling and resulted in a new town name.

By 1836, Front Royal was made the seat of the new Warren County. Then it was a center for wagon-making and, by 1854, a rail line had moved west from Manassas. The town's Civil War history includes stories and events concerning Gen. Stonewall Jackson, southern spy Belle Boyd and John Mosby's Rangers.

Over the years, Front Royal has maintained something of a frontier-town look because of its tourist orientation. Downtown is small and generally unimpressive despite a few new buildings. However, a current effort to upgrade Main Street is under way. Town Manager Walter Duncan said the goal is to provide a better setting for varied small businesses rather than to compete with the 15-store Royal Plaza mall, which is highlighted by thriving K-mart, A&P and Safeway stores, as well as a Rite-Aid drug store.

Edward T. Bromfield Jr., owner-publisher of the county's weekly newspaper, the Front Royal-Warren Sentinel, for 28 years, said that he and his co-editor wife plan to retire in Front Royal. But he noted that unemployment statistics are up and more people are looking for work.

Located just a few miles from the newly completed I-66 highway and its strategic intersection with I-81, Front Royal has what Bromfield described as "amazing traffic" during the tourist season. A branch of the Norfolk & Western Railway and Southern Railway provide the town with daily freight service. A small county airport serves private aircraft, but Dulles International, about an hour away, puts the area in touch with all parts of the nation and the world.

Town Manager Duncan said that Front Royal is essentially a middle-class community. Bromfield added that "people here are surprisingly cosmopolitan."

A dozen truck lines are authorized to serve the community and county. A health club, King's Court, was opened last year in Front Royal.

Ed Harper, a seasoned businessman who now runs the chamber of commerce, the airport commission and the industrial development effort, commented that the "coming of Du Pont" was one of the town's major recent successes. He added that "we didn't woo them; they selected us very quietly and carefully."

The town made water and sewer connections available for Du Pont. Front Royal also owns its own electrical generating plant. Duncan said it enables the property tax rate to be kept at a low total 80 cents per $100 of actual valuation.

Ed Groseclose, who handles employe relations at the Du Pont plant, said the site was selected for good labor supply and generally positive atmosphere, plus facilities like the 150-bed Warren Memorial Hospital. Du Pont brought 80 executives and supervisors to Front Royal to start up the new plant, where the company believes employment could double or triple in this decade. CAPTION: Picture, DuPont's $20 million, 250-employe plant is at center of new activity near Front Royal. By Charles Huntley for The Washington Post; Map, no caption, by Richard Furno -- The Washington Post