IN THURMONT, you won't catch the natives all starry-eyed and hopelessly agog over "David."

That's what the locals call Camp David, the renowned retreat of presidents wrapped snugly in the coolness of Catoctin National Park, six miles west of Thurmont on Route 77.

Of course, not every small town in America can brag that the most powerful leader in the free world is a regular weekend visitor. Thanks to extraordinarily tight security measures, the chief executive and the first lady can slip in and out of town without being fawned over. The 4,100 people who call this northern Frederick County jewel home respect their right to privacy.

Ernie Gelwick stands on the sidewalk in front of his package store, eyes Thurmont's Main Street and observes, "It's a low-key town. As you can see, there's not a whole lot of activity here." Gelwick, 37, echoes the sentiments laid down by others about not getting feverish over presidential sojourns. "The only thing that might alert us," he explains, "is when the motorcade comes through. When the mountain's fogged in and he can't fly, he takes the helicopter to the landing pad at one of the schools and then drives."

But nobody lines the streets. Garbage still gets picked up, and the traffic signals don't go on yellow flashing. "Nothing changes. It's not announced," Gelwick reported.

Not only is Thurmont a place where a nickel will buy you 30 minutes at a parking meter, it's also where $70,000 or $80,000 will get you a new, single-family home with three bedrooms, says Jim Smith, who runs J&B Realty with wife Bonita. "And your annual property tax on that house will be in the neighborhood of $600.

"Frederick," says Smith, who also owns Bottom of the Bay, a seafood house in Laurel, "is growing in leaps and bounds, and we're getting the overflow. People are looking for more of a country living. I'm in the real estate business, but I'm not that crazy about seeing a Frederick sitting out here. I like it the way it is."

Thurmont, with its down-hominess, a strong and steady economic base and a low-powered radio station pumping out songs about honky tonks and cheating hearts, finds itself spinning on a carousel of history.

It was here, according to George Wireman, local historian and newspaper editor, that President Dwight D. Eisenhower and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan abandoned all semblance of protocol at Palm Sunday church services.

Wireman recalls the day with relish. It was 1959, "and I had the honor of escorting them. I asked them to sign the church register, and they were just like a couple of kids! Macmillan asked Ike, 'Now, how are you going to sign the book? Are you going to put the White House, Camp David or your farm in Gettysburg as your address?' So, Ike turned to Macmillan and said, 'Well, how are you going to sign it? Are you going to sign it No. 10 Downing Street, or are you going to give your personal address?' And then," Wireman, 67, recalled, "they got to arguing who was going to be the first to sign the book. They were just ordinary people."

Presidents (and their visitors) aren't the only ones who occasionally need to head for the nearby hills to refresh the spirit. Thurmont is surrounded by a melange of recreational outlets, all within an easy hour's drive of the D.C. din.

For openers, there's Cunningham Fall State Park, just off U.S. 15. Feast your senses on 15 miles of hiking trails, campsites and a terrific, 40-foot waterfall near the main highway. In summer, it's a favorite spot for swimming, canoeing, fishing and picnics. But once the first snow falls, the park offers sledding in the Manor Area and a cross-country ski trail in the Houck Area.

In 1774, James Johnson built an iron furnace on Little Hunting Creek. One of the partners in the venture was Thomas Johnson, who later served as Maryland's first governor. During the Revolution, the furnace churned out weapons for the Continental Army. And it was here that the iron plates for the Civil War battleship Monitor were cast. Catoctin Furnace, now a designated historical district, can be reached via Route 806.

If you're a'hankering to stride over to "David" and jawbone with Ronnie Reagan about, oh, SDI, the deficit or when he thinks Mario Cuomo will make his reentry into the race, better put your thoughts in a letter instead. While most of the 6,000-acre federally managed Catoctin Mountain Park is yours to romp at will, the commander-in-chief's compound is strictly off limits. In warmer weather, though, you can unfurl your mayonnaise-stained blanket at the picnic site only a mile from "David," and over burgers and deviled eggs, imagine the likes of Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and Nikita Khrushchev walking nearby.

It's high noon, and the Thurmont Tavern is a beehive of activity. The jukebox is blasting and the regulars are racking 'em up on the lone pool table near the front door. The cherry red and white checkered tablecloths with the wooden rose as a centerpiece give it a warm touch. The Thurmont Tavern -- most folks call it Buddy's -- feeds mostly construction workers, merchants and people like Mitzi Grimes.

It's a ritual: Once a week for many years now, Grimes has motored the 30-odd miles from her home in Damascus just to bite down on one of the cheeseburgers.

"People here are friendly," says Grimes, who's retired from Neiman-Marcus. "I'm from Texas, and it reminds me of the small town there that I'm from. People speak to you on the street, whether it's your first time here or not. I wouldn't mind living here."

Next to the spectacular mountain peaks and Camp David, the most talked-about spot in these woods is the Cozy Restaurant . . . and the Cozy Motel-Inn and the Cozy Village of Shoppes. This harbor of hospitality traces its beginnings to a 12-seat eatery started by Wilbur Freeze in 1929. Freeze, a Thurmont son, lived for a spell in Detroit. Today, the Cozy empire is managed by Freeze's son, Jerry, 52, and his wife, Becky, who doubles as editor of the seasonal tabloid newspaper, the Cozy News.

Winston Churchill stopped at the Cozy for dinner on his way to a wartime meeting with Roosevelt. Other celebrity customers include Walter Cronkite, Sam Donaldson and Barbara Walters. But Freeze thinks the impressive list should also include the unsung team that pilots the presidential helicopter (they sack out at the motel) and the scribes from United Press International, who stay there while covering the president.

GETTING THERE -- From the Beltway take I-270 north to Frederick, then U.S. 15 north 20 miles to Thurmont. Camp David is 6 miles west of Thurmont via Rte. 77 in Catoctin Mountain Park.