Where did you get that? friends ask, admiring my schoolmaster's desk (1830). And what about the pine dresser? When I tell them I shop in Highland, Maryland, they're curious.

Antique-lovers -- here's my secret: Fortyfive minutes from Washington is a cluster of antique shops that nobody knows about. The dealers, unpretentious and amiable, specialize in 18th-century antiques, golden oak, country pine, cut glass, and decorative objects.

Intrigued? Pack a lunch, take a map and drive to the Fulton Shop, where Mr. and Mrs. Sowers sell 18th- and 19th-century American furniture.

"We've been here twenty years, and still shop once a week," said Mr. Sowers, "and if Mrs. Sowers hears of something special she's on the road in a minute."

Smart shoppers, he said, buy antiques, because they know qntiques grow more valuable the longer you keep them. Most of the Sower's customers are young professionals.

The uncluttered but well-stocked shop contains corner cupboards from Pennsylvania and Maryland (1860), a walnut secretary (1860), a dresser from the Hepplewhite period, a 'shearton dresser, and a Victorian davenport desk, which Mrs. Sowers said isn't that old but is unusual enough to show.

Cherry drop-leaf tables, washstands, a Boston rocker and a Lincoln rocker are part of the inventory.

"It's hard to tell exact date of some furniture,"said Mr. Sowers. "In the 1700s, the Boston cabinetmakers put their name or a sticker on their furniture. We'd love to sell pieces like that, but who can afford them?"

"We do have one chest from 1770, which will be lovely when it's refinished," he continued. "Our refinisher works miracles. Once I found a little chest that went through a flood. It was in pieces and covered with mud. Now it's a show-stopper."

Mrs. Sowers said that some people think they have an antique if a piece is 50 years old. "We don't even sell golden oak, made at the turn of the century, because it isn't old enough. I'm not against golden oak, and if your childern bang on the furniture it's great.

Down the road, Bob Smith, owner of Yankee Trader, stocks lots of golden oak. In fact he used to sell it exclusively.

"Oak is popular with people under 40; they like sturdy, handsome furniture like these dining tables, wardrobes and roll-top desks. They're usually raising kids and don't want to worry about delicate furniture," he explained.

Recently, Smith added Victorian furniture to his shop. "Victorian furniture is coming into its own," he said. "People are into substyles and they study the workmanship to figure out who the cabinetmaker was.

"I know that some people think Victorian furniture is too ornate, but you have to appreciate it for the quality, at least. Plus it's made from solid walnut and can't be duplicated," he said, adding: "We've been a throw-away society; people threw out wonderful Victroian bureaus with white marble tops when they moved and didn't have room. Now people keep furniture forever. You'll hand Victorian furniture down to great-great-grandchildren. It's made to last."

He collects clocks, too. A Seth Thomas Regulator hangs next to several schoolhouse wall clocks, and six American mantle clocks tick away on a shelf.

Smith does his own refinishing; he is particularly proud of a mahogany lockside (1876). He unlocked a side panel before he could pull the drawers open, saying: "Important papers are safe inside this chest." Blanket chests, candlestick telephones and more furniture fill his second building.

Walk across the street and meet Mrs. Alice Carter. "I think we're know for our country pine pieces," she says. "We have six pine dressers now. They're great for children's rooms.

"But I think poplar, another soft wood, is as pretty as pine, don't you?" she asked, pointing to a corner cupboard of poplar. A pine cupboard stood nearby. Both are from 1860

Carter said that the antique business is the most absorbing business in the world: "It's a treasure hunt. I think I'm never going to find a certain piece, then someone calls the next day wanting to sell that very thing. I don't shop at auctions, it's too timeconsuming. I buy out of homes.

"I found this Shearton slant-front desk in the Amish country, and this dry sink, too. People use dry sinks for bars and plantstands now, but they were made for washing dishes. The dishpan sat in the basin, which was made of copper or tin."

Carter sells glassware, baskets, and iron pieces like a boot scraper to put at the back door. She'll bring out boxes of antique linen if you ask. "A neighbor irons everythin perfectly, and people drop the linen on the floor, so I keep it in the back."

Grey Goose Antiques and Arts is next. Decorative objects fill two rooms of Mrs. Dooly's home.

"My daughter is the genius behind the display," says Mrs. Dooly: "She found room for 200 oil lamps, butter churners, loads of jugs and crocks, and all these antique tools." She showed off some cherry-stoners and apple-peelers that were used in factories, and said people use them at home now.

A calendar clock (1889), and a thirty-hour weight-driven clock of rosewood hang among dozens of china plates.

Mrs. Dooly bought things for twenty years, before opening her shop: "I filled a garage and a basement, and when I was saturated, I asked myself if I was ready, and we opened the shop."

Mrs. Dooly keeps a wanted list. "If someone asks me to find flow blue china, I'll try to get it for them.

"I have a fetish for foot stools, and I'm getting into doll furniture," she said. She has found a high chair and three doll beds so far. An antique doll sleeps in one, covered with a blanket and comforter. Next stop is Barbara Beye's Aston Gift House. Beye adores cut glass. "Collectors look for Steuben made before the '30s and art glass, which is individually designed; I don't have either now. People call all the time and check."

Cambridge glass made in Ohio from 1898 to 1958 is organized by color. "This company worked with a fabulous color range," she said, lifting an emerald glass to the light. An etching of a fox hunt circled the rim. Pink bowls, sky-blue candlesticks, purple vases and golden candy dishes catch the eye.

Heisey glass, which is also very collectable, according to Beye, is in another room. "Prices for this glass compare with department-store prices, and I think if you're giving a gift or need something yourself, why not buy something that can't be replaced?"

Last stop is High's. I ordered a triple scoop of chocolate ice cream. Antiquing is hard work.

To get to these places, go out U.S. 29 to Route 216 and make a left; they all have copies of a map showing where the others are.