A deep, almost religious belief in the value of land coupled with an unexpected industrial boom in a remote, rock-ribbed Virginia county has transformed John N. Dalton from a gentleman farmer into one of the richest men to run for governor of Virginia in years.

Just how wealthy Dalton is - until this summer he was known across the state as a modestly successful smalltown lawyer - remains a zealously guarded family secret.

A check of records here and in Richmond confirms what only a few Dalton associates knew for years: the 46-year-old Republican and the members of his immediate family can count their wealth in the millions of dollars. His farms alone could be valued at $2.8 million, some here say.

Dalton also has $273,960 worth of stock in a Radford bank, $25,000 in stock in a natural gas company, an interest in business and rental properties valued at $345,190, a home (in his wife's name) valued at $137,000 and considerably more. What is totals he won't say and under Virginia law, he is not required to make such a disclosure.

Accounts of his fortune already have stirred some of the sharpest exchanges between Dalton and his Democratic opponent, Henry E. Howell, who has said he intends to make an issue of Dalton's wealth. Howell, a lawyer who by all accounts is much poorer than Dalton, has charged that Dalton "has been too busy making more than a million dollars" to have served properly as the state's lieutenant governor for the past three years. Dalton has denied the charge angrily, calling it another of Howell's "patently phony issues" and accusing Howell of "demagoguery" by questioning his money.

Presented with the findings of a Washington Post investigation into his holdings, Dalton did not deny that he is a millionaire. "If he being successful is bad for Virginia," he said with a smile in his Richmond campaign headquarters the other day, "then I plead guilty."

In fact, Dalton spoke of his wealth as an asset in the Nov. 8 election. "I think most Virginians want someone who has been successful to handle their money," he said. And Dalton, as the public records indicate, has been enormously successful.

Precisely how successful that is, Dalton refused to say. Dalton's disclosure forms, although more detailed than the law requires, still leave unanswered gaps and questions about his wealth.

Dalton said he considers the question a private matter and was embarrassed by the disbelief among some Radford townsfolk and neighbors over news stories revealing him to be a millionaire. "Financial worth is not an issue in this campaign and Mr. Howell knows it," he says.

He also says that newspaper accounts indicating he and the five members of his immediate family are worth more than $1 million each are exaggerated.

It no secret here that choice, gently rolling farmland in neighboring Pulaski County comprises the bulk of the Dalton's holdings. Together, the family owns 2,283.03 acres of debt-free land on three separate farms, according to land records there. Dalton and a former law partner jointly own a fourth, 279.4-acre farm there.

The farms, which some real estate dealers say could be sold for as much as $2.8 million, comprise only a portion of Dalton's wealth. Less visible, and just as likely to provoke political controversy this year, are his family's holdings in banking, furniture companies, cattle, energy stocks and his small but thriving law firm.

Undoubtedly Dalton's personal wealth and a name famous in Virginia political circles have helped propel his rapid rise within the Republican Party. After three terms in the House of Delegates and one year in the State Senate.Dalton sailed into the office of lieutenant governor in 1973 on a media-oriented campaign he helped finance. Finance records filed with the state indicate that Dalton himself advanced a total of $95,000 to his campaign treasury and was eventually repaid all but $18,818.04 of the loan from contributions.

The source of much of his wealth and his political fortunes is his uncle and adoptive father, Ted Dalton, an affable Radford lawyer who in the 1950s was known as "Mr. Republican" in Virginia.

The elder Dalton, who twice ran for governor and is now a semi-retired federal judge, brought John into his home at age 4 after the youngster's parents had divorced.

Forty-two years later the bonds between the two men remain close and a look at candidate Dalton's wealth gives one measure of their devotion. Much of the family's land and stocks have come directly from Ted Dalton in the form of outright gifts, in "love and affection" as the land deeds say, for John Dalton, his wife and their four children.

Vast though those land holdings are, what has happened to this once-rural, somnolent county, more than anything John Dalton has done, may account for most of his wealth. As Dalton puts it: "I don't feel like I am the only one who has benefited."

He isn't. The decisions of several major industries (among them truck maker White Motor Corp., Pulaski Furniture Corp. and metallic cylinder maker Xaloy Inc.) to build plants in the fertile New River Valley farmlands have sent land values here sky-rocketing.

Seven years ago a published survey of the county placed the value of farmland at $245.60 an acre."Since then it's been going up at a rate of 20 per cent a year," said Jerry Miller, a Pulaski County farm agent.

Legal fees - not the silvers of farmland that he has sold off for as much as $3,000 an acre in recent years - have provided John Dalton with most of his income, he said in an interview. The law firm, Dalton and Jebo, is the successor to the firm his adoptive father organized and which, for years, was better known for the politicans it produced than for its legal work.

In addition to Ted Dalton, other Republicans who have been in the firm include Richard H. Poff, a former congressman who is now on the Virginia State Supreme Court, and James C. Turk, a former state senator who is a federal district judge. Turk and John Dalton paid $50,000 for the jointly owned farm in Pulaski County that they bought in 1966 when they were law partners.

Despite his prolonged absences from Radford in recent years. John Dalton says the small firm has remained "very successful . . . probably as successful as any firm" in the area. Last year he won a $100,000 verdict for a client in a civil suit, the largest award in Pulaski County history, he said, adding that "It doesn't take many of those to have a good law practice."

Among the firm's clients have been major insurance companies, the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. of Virginia, mining companies and the major bank in Radford. Dalton says his firm handles local court appearances only for these firms and never appears before state regulatory agencies on their behalf - a controversial practice of some lawyer-members of the state legislature.

Banks, insurance companies and utilities have been among Howell's favorite targets in the past, a fact that may account for Dalton's reluctance to be more specific about sources of his income. "You're doing Howell's homework for him," complained one top Dalton aide when a reporter asked about his candidate's wealth.

Also interesting is the firm's work for farm families buying homes financed by a federal agency. During the second half of the Nixon administration. Dalton's firm was placed at the top of a list of local "Republican" law firms authorized to handle loans arranged by the Farmers Home Administration, according to the agency's Virginia director. FHA offices across the country maintained similar lists, he said.

That decision meant that Dalton's firm probably handled "about 70 per cent" of the loans processed by the FHA's Pulaski office between 1970 and 1976, said Richard A. Goodling, the FHA official.

Between 1971 and 1975 the Pulaski FHA office handled between 800 and 900 home loans at an average lawyer's fee of $250, Goodling said. At that rate, the federal government, often a target of Dalton's campaign oratory, could have channeled about $140,000 in legal fees to his law firm.

Dalton disputed Goodling's statement on the precentage of work his office did for the agency and said that the fees were relatively small.

Dalton rejected requests to make his tax returns public. In the interview, however, he said his income from the law firm has been adequate to meet his living expenses and give him capital for some investments.

As Virginia's lieutenant governor, Dalton is regarded as a part-time state employee and paid only $10,500 a year. That's hardly enough to have offset the costs of his almost constant travel around the state and the costs of hiring an extra aide out of his own pocket as he has done for the past three years.

Nor would the state salary have been of much help in paying for the rambling, colonial-style home complete with balcony and two large fire-places that the Daltons built several years ago on Fourth Street here. City records list the unmortgaged home's value at $137,000 and some city officials say it is the "the best" home in this town of 11,400.

Although the biege-trimmed home is the showpiece of the Dalton holdings here, it is not the most valuable land the Daltons own in the city. Through Sutton Development Corp., a real estate holding firm, the family and some others own 10 aging stores, two 30-year-old apartment buildings and one vacant business lot. The city has valued the properties at $345,190.

Probably one of the Dalton's largest holdings is in the locally independent First and Merchants National Bank of Radford, where he has been a director since 1972 and serves as the bank's lawyer. According to a proxy statement issued for the bank's last shareholders meeting, no other director controlled as many shares of the bank's stock as Dalton.

At the current price of $20 a share his holdings of 13,698 shares are worth $273,960. His children also own stock in another of the area's independent banks, First National bank of Christianburg, but since Dalton is not a director of that bank his interests in the bank are not required to be disclosed.

Some of Dalton's other investments have appreciated significantly, he said. For instance, a $1,200 purchase of stock in a concern that operates coal mines in southern Illinois is now worth $25,000, he said.

According to his disclosure statement, Dalton also owns stock in the Roanoke-based Norfolk and Western Railway Co., and Coleman Furniture Corp. of Pulaski, and has a retirement trust established for himself that invests in the Dryefus Leverage Fund, a mutual fund.

The members of his family also own securities valued at more than $5,000 or more in Colgate Palmolive Co., International Telephone and Telegraph Corp., Pulaski Furniture Corp., Southern Pacific Railroad Co., Best Products Co., a Virginia-based discount chain; Cooper Industries Inc., an engine and equipment manufacturer; and United Technology, Inc., a major aerospace conglomerate.

Ted Dalton was already a well-established lawyer who had had begun purchasing farm property when John, son of Ted Dalton's wife's sister, moved into their home here in 1936. The Depression had hit the area but Dalton's specialty was automobile injury lawsuits. That, one Southwest Virginia lawyers says, "gave him something rare in those days - cash."

With his money Dalton bought land, some of it for as little as $55 an acre and some of it in barter for legal work. "Land is a better investment than anything," the elder Dalton told his adopted son.

After John Dalton graduated from the University of Virginia's law school in 1957, he returned to his father's law firm and began practicing both law and his father's economic principles.

Along with most of the county's farmers Dalton is worried over what this year's scheduled reappraisal of land will do to his taxes. Currently the highest appraisal of lands is $250 an acre. Most agricultural officials say $600 an acre is the rock-bottom minimum for farmland in the county. "I'm scared to death what they'll do to me," Dalton said.

For like many here who are dismayed about accounts of Dalton's wealth, Dalton himself remained somewhat disbelieving over the boom in land prices. "Looking back," he said, "I don't think anybody could have anticipated what has happened here."