Six weeks ago, with the advent of a new grocery shop, the small, sometimes almost forgotten community of Huntington - also known as Old Bowie - regained a tiny piece of a once-proud tradition.

The store opened by Tom and Erika Stuart is the first grocery market to serve Huntington in many years. With the coming of this store, Old Bowie came a little closer to being the self-sufficient small town it had been from the time of the Civil War until the 1950s.

It was in those post World War II years that the old area was surrounded and almost smothered by the thousands of Levitt-built homes that make up today's Bowie.

In the past five years, dozens of small businesses have moved into Huntington, and newly-formed citizens' groups have worked hard to solve the community's problems.

But amid all the hope and hard work by community residents, something very frightening is happening in Huntington: arson. A series of suspicious fires has divided and embittered the community, and is threatening to destroy the town altogether, unless fire investigators can prevent it.

In a little more than a year and a half, there have been five suspicious fires in Huntington, which has a population of about 1,000. All five have been at buildings housing antique shops, most of which recently moved into Huntington and are centerpieces of the town's revitalization efforts.

The latest fire, on July 18, destroyed two small antique stores and an upholstery shop, and caused $29,000 in damage.

Prominent antique merchants and residents have had numerous meetings with fire officials, police, and Prince George's County officials in an effort to draw attention to the problem.

"It's the easiest way to kill this town," said Jerry Muller, head of the Bowie Home Protection Association. "People are getting very bitter, they're very suspicious."

No one in Bowie seems to have any idea of who may be responsible for the fires. Some, like Polly Brammell, an owner of Fireside Antiques, one of the stores recently razed, suspect a lone pyromaniac or a gang of juveniles.

"The antique dealers think the community kids are doing it, and the community thinks the dealers are paying to have it done for insurance," said Rachel Brewer, a social worker who has lived in Huntington for 35 years. It's a terrible thing to happen to the town."

The string of fires, it seems, may reopen old divisions in Huntington that many residents believed were finally beginning to heal.

The bitterness dates to the late 1950s, when developer William Levitt, armed with promise of new services to Old Bowie, convinced residents to annex his new suburban communities south of the town.

Before long, Huntington was dwarfed by the new neighborhoods of Belair, and the new shopping malls created to serve the homes drove the family stores of the old town out of business, according to Bowie mayor Audrey Scott.

By the late 1960s, Brewer said, resentment by Huntington residents, about half of whom are black, had reached a peak against the new city of Bowie, predominantly white, and its government.

Then in the early 1970s, one at a time at first, then by the dozens, the antique dealers moved in. They occupied the old buildings where the stores and hotels once had been, and they attracted strangers - people from all over Maryland who, the residents felt, knew and cared nothing about the community.

"It's hard to understand if you live in a small town where you know everybody by name," Brewer said. "All of a sudden I would be walking down the street and there would be people I didn't know, people I had never seen before."

In the past seven years, however, the antique dealers and the old community residents have come to appreciate one another. The dealers took old buildings that had been vacant for years and restored them for their shops. Some were so attracted to the community that they decided to move in.

The new merchants also organized an antique dealers' association, and helped stimulate Bowie officials to pay attention to Huntington, said Scott, who serves as mayor for both Huntington and the newer sections of Bowie.

Now, sidewalks are being put in along Huntington streets, and street-lamps have been installed. In addition, city administrators, under pressure from Huntington residents, have obtained a three-year, $1 million federal grant to restore an old, abandoned school in the town and help refurbish houses in the area, some of which date to the 1860s.

"The dealers are concerned about the town, and they've brought us some recognition," says Tom Stuart. "That's why we're finally getting sidewalks in here."

The Stuarts formerly lived in Bowie, but moved into Huntington four years ago, attracted by the town's atmosphere and "the super people."

A grocery store, they decided, was just what the community needed. "Elderly people in this town used to have to walk or ride five miles to get to shop," Tom Stuart said. "It's been 10 years since there was a store that served Huntington.

So far, the Stuarts say, the store has been succeeding, and they hope that business will become even better if the town continues its economic improvement.

But with their fortunes depending on the fortunes of Huntington, the Stuarts are dismayed by the fires. "I wish to hell they'd find out who it is," says Tom. "The community is very angry, and they're getting hurt by it. The people who owned [the recently destroyed shops] had no insurance. They had good businesses going, and now they're lost."

Residents in Bowie are desperate for a way to stop the burning. Muller's home protection association, with several hundred members, is considering establishing a 24-hour volunteer vigilante service.

For Brewer, the fires are symptomatic of problems that may not go away soon.

"It isn't just Bowie," she said. "It's like this everywhere, now. All towns are going to have these problems. A lot of people many think they know the answers to these things," Brewer said, "but they don't. Because there may not be any."