"I like to try to beat the gray-haired ladies at their game," smiles Alan Rubin, owner of the Biograph Theater in Georgetown and two-time winner in the bake-off at the Delaplane Strawberry Festival in Delaplane, Virginia. Washington's own Willard Scott of the "Today Show" usually presents the bake-off awards at the festival, and his wife, Mary, helps out by scooping ice cream for strawberry sundaes and strawberry shortcake. "It's one of the nicest events around," says Mary Scott enthusiastically, "and it doesn't cost a nickel to have a good time." The Scotts and Rubin are regulars at the Delaplane Strawberry Festival, as are several thousand others who come every year for the old-fashioned games and street dancing, and to eat homemade strawberry shortcake. No matter that the berries come from California; the down-home fun is strictly Virginian and runs from 1 to 5 this Sunday, or until the last of 800 pounds of berries has disappeared under the fresh whipped cream on the last homemade shortcake. The festival began in 1976 as a bicentennial celebration for the sleepy little village -- a general store, antique shop, post office and nine houses -- and now has become a local institution. The festival sprawls from Delaplane's only street to the meadow near Goose Creek where a few hundred strawberry-stuffed kids can enjoy three-legged, wheelbarrow and sack races, dodge ball, tug of war, blind man's turnabout and an egg toss that leaves the better part of six dozen fresh eggs smashed on strawberry-stained little hands and oozing onto the meadow grass. There's also the strawberry bake-off, a dunking booth (said to have a "hair trigger"), a hammer and gong "test of strength" (won each year by a local resident named "Tiny"), crafts for sale, bluegrass music by the Free State Ramblers, dancing in the street, a husband-calling contest (loud is all that counts) and generous servings of strawberries, ice cream and homemade cake at a dollar a helping. A dollar also buys a slice from one of the winning bake-off desserts -- or from one of the runners-up. "They're all good," says bake-off judge Betty Morf. Morf, who claims to have the best job at the festival, has nibbled at the likes of Rubin's two prize- winners -- a strawberry trifle and a fancy meringue concoction. She has also sampled the delights of poet and cattleman Harry McCarty's strawberry pies, and Zack Fleetwood's Swedish strawberry torte -- a monumental work composed of layered crepes, creams, sauces and glazed berries. On Saturday morning the children shuttle berries between the refrigerated truck where they're stored (the first year they were crammed into everybody's home refrigerators), and the Piedmont Episcopal Church basement where the women cap and clean them -- a thousand pints of strawberries. Just before the festival begins, a battery of village food processors is assembled to slice the berries, and electric mixers start turning 24 quarts of fresh cream into mountains of whipped topping for sundaes and strawberry shortcake. "The first year we burned out a Cuisinart," recalls Peggy Honeycutt, who spent weeks organizing that festival on her home phone while she nursed a broken leg. "We were hoping to make enough money to buy a historical plaque for Delaplane, but when it was all over, we had cleared only 67 cents!" After the first year, things picked up financially. Although music and games are free at the festival, most everything else costs a dollar, except for the crafts, whose prices are set at individual booths. It all adds up and last year meant $1,900 for Marshall's son Edward, who lived near Delaplane at Oak Hill, was responsible for putting through the village around 1852. It was Edward Marshall's dream to develop Virginia's interior by linking the productive Shenandoah Valley with the port of Alexandria, but when the Civil War broke out just nine years after rails were laid through Delaplane (then known as Piedmont Station), prosperity was set aside for another day. The Manassas Gap Railroad was alternately destroyed and rebuilt by the Union Army and the Confederates all through the war. After the Civil War, Delaplane flourished for a time as a supply station for the area. It boasted several mercantile establishments, including a hat- decorator's shop that still stands in Delaplane with the sign "mantua maker" visible in the window. Until World War II the train continued to make regular stops in Delaplane. "It was a great to-do to meet the train," recalls Delaplane resident Katherine Finley. But after the war, regular service was never resumed, and Delaplane became the quiet little village it is today -- except at strawberry festival time. BERRIED TREASURE From the Beltway, take I-66 about 50 miles west to U.S. 17, then go north about three miles to Delaplane..