The movie theater, the high school and the police force all folded years ago, but the widows in this once - bustling coal mining town hang on.

One of every three houses in this western Maryland of some 400 people on the Potomac River s inhabited by a widow. On East Main, widows occupy 11 of 17 adjoining houses.

"This is the most unique town in the world," said Ross Sowers, who owns the town's single service station. "Per capita," he said with a twinge of ironic civic pride. "I expect there are more rooms and less people here than just about anyplace else."

Many, perhaps most, of the widows who live here are drawing black lung pensions left by their husbands.

They are women like Leanna Davis, 65. Since her husband, who was disabled in a 194i mining accident, died a decade ago, she and her 61-year-old sister have occupied four of the 15 rooms in the weathered frame building she calls "my shack."

The back porch is sagging, and the front steps need repair, but inside, her living room presents a Norman Rockwell picture of warmth, anchored by a coal-burning heater and a 1945 Silvertone floor model radio.

Adorning the radio are an American flag, a bronzed baby shoe, a small photograph of her minister and his wife and an aphorism that says, "Love is the only treasure that grows more beautiful with time."

"It's as cheap here as anyplace else, and I don't like it as well in the city," she said.

In addition to social security, Leanna Davis receives a black lung pension, which has helped her afford some interor redecorating. The retroactive lump-sum payments and monthly stipends rave eased the twilight years for many of the miners' widows here, providing money for home improvements and even some savings.

"People around here have been through so many hard times, now is the best time of their lives," said David A. Burdock, the town's 35-year-old undertaker. "an old bachelor would have a field day here."

But the future looks bleak, even for bachelors in this town of the aging. "I keep thinking," the undertaker said, "one of these days, we're gonna be so busy we won't know what to do."

Once, the Wilson-Fidler American Legion Post 113 had 60 members and a meeting place in the old grammer school whose windows are now boarded. Now, there are only 10 members, the bare minimum needed to keep its charter, and eight live elsewhere, in places as far away as Yreka, Calif.

Kitzmiller, like its legion post, clings tenaciously to life.

The storefronts at the once busy corner of Union and Main are vacant. Well water, as always, is generally unfit to drink, and raw sewage flushes into a stream coursing to the Potomac. Nearly one of every four homes lacks indoor plumbing.

Nonetheless, the old people stay, hauling their drinking water in gallon jugs from Short Run a few miles away, ritually congregating at wilson's Barber Shop in the evenings, taking their lunches three days a week in a federally subsidized hot meals program at the Town Hall.

The town sprang up around the woolen mill Ebenezer Kitzmiller built in 1853. The coming of the railroad in the 1880s brought a lumber boom, and coal mining became the town's economic mainstay around the turn of the century.

At its peak, Kitzmiller boasted 1,800 people, a movie theater, its own bank, three barber shops, a dentist, two doctors, three groceries, two dry goods stores, a beauty parlor and a pharmacy. There were neve any bars, however. A covenant in all deeds banned the manufacture and sale of all alchoholic beverages here.

Kitzmiller miners found drink across the river in Blaine, W.Va., and work in the mountains above the town, at the Hamill Coal & Coke Co. in Blaine, and in the nearby towns of Shallmar and Vindex. When the mines closed 30 years ago, there was nothing else to fuel the economy.

"Now it's completely in the slumps," said Gerald Chadderton, 53, from the driver's seat of rusting station wagon. A former miner, Chadderton said he has not worked since 1959.

His nephew drove up the narrow side street, his car stopping nose to nose with Chadderton's. "he don't work either," chadderton said, playfully pointing a loaded .22 magnum pistol at his nephew. "He's been trying to get a ground hog for five years," chuckled a passenger in Chadderton's station wagon. "He ain't got one yet"

For years, only the rising waters of the Potomac River threatedned the town's existence. A dreadful flood in March 1924 nearly destroyed Kitzmiller. The town bounded back, however, to mark the installation of an electric light system and the paving of its streets with a parade the following year.

To stem the flood threat, the Army Corps of Engineers tore down a block of homes and the movie emporium to widen the river and build levees in 1963.

The theater was bound to close anyway, according to Robert L. Lyons, the $150-a-year Kitzmiller mayor who used to run it. The business just wasn't there. Lyons, a night shift foreman at a paper mill several miles downriver, oversees a town budget of $20,000 -- 40 percent of it for street repairs and 12 percent to power 33 street lights. "If you have a major disaster here, you're in trouble," he said.

Rte. 38 winds down the mountain into Kitzmiller and crosses the Potomac over what is still called the "new bridge," now nearly a quarter of a century old. The span replaced an 1870s structure and moved the town center one block west from Union Street.

Ross Sowers' service station, the only place in town that sells alcoholic beverages -- and then only beer to take out -- and a branch bank line one side of Rte. 38. Across the street, almost hidden below the roadbed, is a large white frame building divided in thirds.

Bill and Carma White and their youngest son, Jeff, 17, live in the middle. On one side are rooms that rented for $2 a night until five or six years ago. Two of them are occupied today by boarders who pay $30 a month, which includes some meals. On the other end is White's Barber Shop. m

The shop provided full-time work for White when he opened for business in 1957. Now, he drives a school bus under contract in the daytime and barbers only at night. He charges $1.50 for a haircut and nothing for the conversation.

The old men come to sit in Bill White's chair, to reminisce, to talk about their children who have moved away and about how they themselves have not. "You get your feet down in this valley, you can't get away," explained Orville Chapman, a retired miner.

"Nelson, how are you tonight?" White asked a customer.

"I could stand a lot of improvement, I guess: physically, financially, spiritually and morally," said the 78-year-old customer.

White consoled him with a story about an 84-year-old man from around here "who got along fine, chased women, drank whiskey, until they got him to go to a doctor who told him he was sick, and he died two weeks later."

White, 47, is one of four town council members. Carma White is the town clerk and secretary to the county school board.

Kitzmiller once had its own high school, built in 1922. It closed in the early 1950s when Garrett County replaced several smaller secondary schools with two regional ones. For years, however, Kitzmiller parents insisted on sending their teen-agers to nearby Elk Garden, W.Va., with the local government paying their out-of-state tuition.

Today, the Kitzmiller students attend Southern High School in Oakland, 20 miles from here, and the old high school has been transformed into in area elementary school, with only 19 of its 129 pupils living in town. But old loyalties die hard, and the Elk Garden Stages football schedule still hangs in Ross Sowers' Texaco station.

Some Kitzmiller institutions survive. The Legion post has not met in several months, but there's a volunteer fire company and a Lions club, each with about 20 active members. For entertainment, there is cable television and a community library that is open 13 hours a week. There's a sign posted at the library that says, "No Loafing and No Smoking."

There are four churches, including one that holds a "Rally for Revival" every Saturday night.

And there is a doctor, who at age 74 has settled into semiretirement, seeing only a dozen patients a day instead of the 100 he once did. Dr. Ralph Calandrella (Doc Cal) lives in "the bottom," a wide, flat area at the lower end of town where he "doctors some in his home," according to Leanna Davis.

Time-consuming paperwork required by government-subsidized medical programs prompted his retirement in 1970, he says. He prefers giving free patient care to dealing with bureaucracy.

"For a little while, I didn't do too much," Doc Cal said. "But we had a couple of bad winters, and the old people wanted me to do stuff. I don't charge 'em. I've treated them for three generations."

On Tuesdays, the county takes a busload of older people to the shopping centers in Oakland. On Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, there's the "hot meals" program upstairs in the Kitzmiller community building where people pay 40 cents for lunch presided over by Mary (Mame) Shanks, 74, a railroad worker's widow.

After grace, a smaller-than-usual group of a dozen persons partook one recent Friday of home-cooked ham, beans, cole slaw, potatoes, cornbread and cake. Leftovers were taken free of charge, to those unable to walk over or climb the stairs.

There is no real written history of Kitzmiller to speak of. There are mainly the recollections and keepsakes of the old people. Foremost keeper of the past is a grizzled old construction worker named Les Wilhelm, who raises rows of raspberries on a hillside overlooking the town.

Wilhelm's collection includes the 1926 Kitzmiller High School yearbook, which contains a sober message from salutatorian Margaret Poole.

The town, she wrote, should build a sewer system and purify its water supply. But even more important. Kitzmiller's businessmen should "help us get some other industry besides mining . . . Why is it that all high school pupils leave the town as soon as they finish? Because the only thing left for girls to do is get married, and the boys' only means of making money is mining."

Margaret Poole, now 71, never did get married, and she left Kitzmiller to become a physical therapist working with crippled children until she retired eight years ago.

"Wasn't I a smart little character?" the 1926 class salutatorian said from her home near Orlando, Fla. "They didn't pay any attention to me." CAPTION: Picture 1, Mayor Robert Lyons lives on this street in Kitzmiller and works as a night foreman in a paper mill downstream. The town budget is $20,000 a year.; Picture 2, Leanna Davis stands beside her 1945 Silvertone radio in the living room of "my shack." Like many Kitzmiller residents, she lives on social security and her late husband's black lung pension.; Picture 3, Kitzmiller rises from the Potomac River in the hills of Western Maryland.; Picture 4, Les Wilhelm, a construction worker, is the unofficial historian of Kitzmiller and has a collection of keepsakes and documents from the past.; Picture 5, Bill White cuts Orville Chapman's hair and chats with him. White's Barber Shop is a favorite gathering place in the evenings when White works. He drives a school bus by day.; Picture 6, Main and Union streets as photographed in the heyday years of the early 1900s. By Lucian Perkins -- The washington Post