Strangers weren't especially welcome around here when Don Wilbur first came down from Connecticut to raise chickens by the crossroads of Maryland's Eastern Shore. World War II had barely ended, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was still unbuilt, and change wasn't a pleasing prospect for the people of Wicomico County.

They needn't have worried. Even though the population of this rural area rose from 40,000 to 60,000 in the next three decades, even though the landscape gradually became dotted with factories and billboards and the long low "broiler houses" where chickens were grown, it didn't make much difference.

Somewhere along the line, the Salisbury area earned the knack of changing without ever really changing and even though they were new to the area, Don Wilber and the thousands of other "foreigners" who followed him here in the 1950s and 1960s tended to think the same thoughts and preach the same conservative values as the people who were here before.

"We're very strong in the 4-H club," said Wilbur, glancing out the window at the stubby remnants of cornstalks and the fuzzy brown acres of soybeans. "Last week there was a community concert, and next Tuesday night there's a meeting of the Delmarva Poultry Association."

Don Wilbur and his wife Mildred fit in well with Salisbury, where the paramount virtues have always been hard work and pride of place."Whatever differences were brought in by all the outsiders, they seemed to mesh well with the thinking of the people who were here before," explained Bill Livingston, a Salisbury native who is now the area's regional planner.

And in the decades that followed World War II, newcomers like Don Wilbur joined the old Wicomico County residents to build a solid, no-frills future for the area.

That was the pattern until recently, but now the community's business leaders have gone on a crusade that might bring a little more glamour to the town: they hope to make Salisbury the administrative headquarters for the off-shore oil industry.

With off-shore oil leases already being sold for mid-Atlantic sites, several communities, in states from Rhode Island to New Jersey to Virginia are competing for that plum. In an effort to further their city's changes., Salisbury businessmen have sent their own ambassadors on frequent trips to Houston. New York and to Louisiana - the present capital of giant offshore drilling concerns.

The oil industry hasn't yet decided to nibble at the bait Salisbury is dangling before them, but if it did, it would lend the area a gloss that it has never quite attained in its methodical march of progress.

While Ocean City, 30 miles to the east, was building a gaudy, neon-lit playground along its beaches, Salisbury built shopping centers and small factories, and raised millions upon million of chickens.

Now in the summertime, while the beaches and condominiums and carrousels of Ocean City are taking center stage, Salisbury stands behind the scenes, funneling to the resort everything it needs to function.

"We wash their (Ocean City's) laundry, we sell them their meat, their soft drinks are bottled here," said Robert Cook, executive director of the group local businessmen have formed to promote their region. "They fly in and out of our airport, their gasoline comes in through our docks." In part because of the success of their service industry, the county's tax rate hasn't increased in three years.

The back-up, utilitarian role has suited Wicomico County's residents well. "We're a hub, that's the word I would use," said Wilber, echoing the language of Chamber of Commerce brochures.

According to the brochure drawn up by the area's private Economic Development of Commission to lure new industry to town, the Salisbury metropolitan area, with some 50,000 persons, boasts eight shopping centers, a zoo, a symphony association, and 102 houses of worship - one Catholic, one Jewish, and 100 Protestant.

The two Indian trials by which Salisbury was build have evolved into Maryland Routes 13 and 50 - the main north-south and east-west arteries on the Delmarva peninsula. Successive generations of city fathers were able to build what is now the second largest port in Maryland on the sluggish, shallow Wicomico River. One million tons of cargo comes in through the port, including most of the crude oil used on the peninsula.

Around the time of World War II, the industries began to arrive. A.W. Perdue & Son, the nationally famous food processer, is now Wicomico County's largest employer - with about 1,500 workers - and is the centerpiece of the area's dominant chicken industry.

Through all this, however, the pace of life remained slow. "We didn't want it to grow fast - and we don't want it to," said Bill Kiley, the executive director of Salisbury Wicomico Economic Development Inc. "We want to retain the existing style of life - we do not want a big city type of thing."

To some extent, they have succeeded. November mornings still find people all over the county crouched silently in duck blinds and factory bells and whistles can't really puncture the drowsiness of August afternoons.

The pace of residential development, however, has quickened; the subdivisions and trailer parks are multiplying at an increasing rate. More than 2,200 new homes have been built in the county in the last seven years and 450 mobile home parks. All this has made Salisbury look a little ragged around the edges.

Residents are only now beginning to question the course of growth, however. For the last 20 or 25 years, there has been remarkable unanimity - unanimity or indifference - about the direction Salisbury shoud go. Slow, steady growth has been the official aim: "orderly growth," Cook repeats over and over.

Construction of certain community landmarks - like the Civic Center (which burned down some six months ago but which is set to be rebuilt or the new $26 million Greater Peninsula Medical Center - are sources of great community pride.

Some of the appreciation for the symbols of growth stems from the isolated position Salisbury once found itself in, before the Bay Bridge was finished in 1952, and even for some years afterwards.

"This area, generally speaking, has had to fight for its growth," explained K. King Burnett, who worked in a Wall Street law firm for seven years before coming back here in the mid-60s to his birthplace.

"It hasn't had to fight against anyone, it just had to fight to keep people coming to an area that was so rural - and to keep young people from leaving," he added. Unemployment in the county - now at about 8 per cent - traditionally was above the state average.

The single-minded push for growth, Burnett said, was accompanied by an almost total absence of land-use planning. "We have a wild-west mentality," Bernett said. "There's all this land, why do you need anything to control it?" Wicomico County Administrative Director Matthew Creamer added that "Before 1967, there was no zoning in the rural sections of the county."

A flood of apartment construction - over 1,000 apartment units have been constructed here in the last few years," Creamer said.

Recently, however, the avid courtship of the oil companies by such economic development ambassadors as Kiley and Robert Cook has raised questions.

"The basic situation here has changed," said attorney Burnett, "Now instead of having to fight for our growth, we may get a lot more than we want . . . We can afford to pick and choose."

In seeking out the oil companies, in trying to get firms like Exxon and Conoco to establish regional office centers here, "I think they're going out and seeking something without knowing what they're getting into," Burnett said.

This attitude annoys Robert Cook, who, although an employee of the Greater Salisbury Committee, a group of leading local businessmen, works closely with such government officials as Creamer. "I think I know more about this than (bringing in oil firms' warehouses and offices) would create a dramatic change at all." CAPTION: Picture 1, Robert Cook walks on mall of a shopping center, a manifestation of leaders' desire for planning.; Picture 2, The $26 million Greater Peninsula Medical Center is one source of pride for Salisbury residents. Plans are afoot to rebuild the Civic Center, which burned. By Bob Burchette - The Washington Post; Picture 3, Division Street in downtown Salisbury reflects the smalltown atmosphere associated with earlier days., Photos by Bob Burchette - The Washington Post