All along the eastern edge of the old farm and college town of Emmitsburg they are bulldozing, landscaping and paving. Perhaps as early as next spring the $6 million expansion of U.s. Route 15 from two lanes to four will be finished.

And perhaps then, for better and/or worse, a substantially new Emmitsburg may begin to take shape for the first time in nearly two centuries.

The revamped highway will be the reason and the means.

It will bring Emmitsburg 10 minutes closer to Washington and make the journey between the two cities safer and easier. Because of that, Emmitsburg may attract enough commuters to considerably swell a population that has held firm at 1,600 since World War II.

"The danger," says one local official, "is Instant Gaithersburg."

But the fear of what the road will bring depends on who you are talking to. The long-term residents tend to resist change; the newer arrivals tend to welcome it.

Which is not to say that Emmitsburg, settled 194 years ago by a farmer named Samuel Emmit, is not exposed to the modern world now.

On one corner of the town square, a unisex hair styling salon is thriving. On the opposite corner, a crafts store sells latter-day distractions such as Scooby Doo Sneakers. Catty-corner to that, Crouse's Pharmacy offers People Magazine and Gatorade Bubble Gum, among other modernisms.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that everything's up to date in Emmitsburg.

Although the town boasts churches of eight faiths, keeping small is the religion here. And keeping small tends to mean resisting the skyscrapers and aluminum siding of urban and suburban America.

As Jane Bollinger, president of the Emmitsburg Town Council, put it, "We want growth; don't get me wrong. We don't bypass it and we won't bypass it.

"It's just that I'm happy with Emmitsburg the way it is."

The overwhelming evidence is that most other Emmitsburgians are, too.

The chamber of commerce died of a bad case of neglect eight years ago, and no one mourned. The railroad hasn't run through town in 40 years, and apparently no one has protested.

Only 11 businesses have been started here in the last five years, and seven of those failed within a year.

Housing starts here last year totaled three.

Two years ago, St. Joseph's College, a 175-year-old Catholic women's school, closed, largely because it had been having difficulty attracting students and thus making ends meet.

Although Mt. St. Mary's College became larger and went coeducational after St. Joseph disappeared, Emmitsburg must be one of the very few college towns in the country without a national-franchise fast-food restaurant, a movie theater or a bookstore.

And all the while, Emmitsburg's population is growing older.

The median age of the year-rounders here was 50 as of last year. That is the oldest median among towns in Frederick County by more than a decade, and one of the oldest median ages in Maryland.

The older Emmitsburg gets, the more ingrown it seems to get, to hear some of the more recent arrivals tell it.

Robert Wickenheiser, Mt. St. Mary's 36-year-old president, likes to recount the story of a professor at "The Mount" who has lived in Emmitsburg 26 years.

The professor has held local office, worked in charity drives, attended a local church and befriended almost everyone in town.

"But the first thing he told me is that the town still doesn't consider him a resident," Wickenheiser said.

Even people who have lived in Emmitsburg all their long lives are skittish about their place in the pecking order.

For example, Francis Scott Key Matthews, 91, was drinking a cup of coffee one recent morning when a reporter pulled up the next stool at the fountain in Crouse's and introduced himself.

The first thing Matthews said was that he is only the second oldest Emmitsburgian.

Ada Sperry, who is 95 and has owned and managed the Emmitsburg Ford dealership for more than half a century, "has me beat, and always will," Matthews carefully made clear.

But Emmitsburg's new four-lane U.S. highway is expected to change the town in a way that the oldsters may not recognize.

The main change the road will bring will be faster and safer access to major employers in Montgomery County, such as IBM and HEW.

Many employes of the two already live in southern Frederick County, but they are said to feel that that area is becoming less small-townish and too suburban. Emmitsburg can't be accused of either.

Twenty-five of the 59 miles between Emmitsburg and the Beltway must now be covered via a winding, two-lane highway through the Catoctin Mountains. It comes complete with frequent cross traffic and poor shoulders.

The new U.S. 15 will be a limited-access highway built to interstate standards, and will cut travel time to the Beltway from 75 minutes to 65.

Beside increasing the number of residents who commute to jobs in the Washington area, the improved U.S. 15 is expected to bring more tourists to Emmitsburg's memorial to Mother Elizabeth Seton, the first native American saint, and to the ski resorts of nearby Pennsylvania.

"The four-lane highway is going to have a dramatic effect on Emmitsburg," Wickenheiser predicted. "The town's not going to be able to avoid issues now -- issues like growth, and variety, and updating services . . .

"A lot of people say they don't want the modern world here, that they like Emmitsburg the way it is. But I think a town of 1,500 becoming a town of 2,500 is not the worst thing that can happen in the modern world."

The Sisters of Charity, the nuns who maintain the Mother Seton memorial, could not agree with Wickenheiser more.

"There's been a definite effort at preservation in Emmitsburg," said Sister John Mary Crumlish, archivist for the Sisters of Charity and a resident of Emmitsburg most of her life.

"But we would welcome better tourist facilities and more local employment. We would especially welcome a place to stay and a nice restaurant. We've hoped and prayed."

The overall local employment picture looks brighter, however, largely because of the arrival of the National Fire Academy.

A branch of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the fire academy bought the St. Joseph's campus for $3.5 million last March.

When it opens this January, the academy will serve as the country's major training center and "graduate school" for fire officials, much as the FBI's Quantico, Va. facility teaches and helps train policemen.

According to acting superintendent William Seifried, about 20 of the academy's 84 fulltime employes are expected to be hired from among residents of the Emmitsburg area.

The academy chose to locate in Emmitsburg largely because the price of the St. Joseph's buildings was right, Seifried said.

"But we are committed to being a good neighbor," he added. "The town knew we would be, and we are committed to that. When we get our first people in here, I think Emmitsburg will find they have a value system that will induce them to go to sleep at night, not run around."

"Emmitsburg's still a little town," said Mt. St. Mary's Wickenheiser, who says he lives across the border in Pennsylvania because he couldn't find a house in Emmitsburg that was new or big enough for his family when he took over the presidency two years ago.

"For a town that had been a two-college town for 170 years, there's been a surprising lack of growth.

"I often ask the question: Where are the kinds of places students and tourists can go? I'm still asking.

"You know, you don't have to grow a lot to become a different community. Emmitsburg can do that, and I'm hoping it will."