It's the road, the highway," says Lem Kirk. "It's a blessing that's become a curse. It was going to be our future, and now it's our biggest problem.

"Best way I can say it, the man who built it must have been a left-handed alcoholic."

When Lem Kirk is unhappy about his home town of Hancock, Md., you can be sure that Hancock is unhappy about itself. For Kirk is the unofficial town father and shirtsleeve historian of this western Maryland mountain village, which is noted for its apple and peach orchards.

Kirk has owned the local Ford dealership for 16 of his 64 years and has served on the board of the Hancock Development Corporation for nearly 30 years. Former owner of Hancock's most popular restaurant and only motel, he served on the Washington County Commission for 16 years and was its president for 10.

But perhaps most important, Kirk is informal chairman and recording secretary of Hancock's Lunch Bunch.

When he slides into the first booth in the Park 'n' Dine Restaurant on East Main Street and begins attacking the dinner rolls, many of Hancock's more prominent businessmen and politicians are right next to him. It is at the Park 'n' Dine that the city's official actions are unofficially decided.

Understandably, the Lunch Bunch was thrilled when Interstate 70 was built through the north side of town in the early 1960s. They looked upon it as bringing economic salvation. What they now admit is that they didn't fully understand its impact, which has been to clog the streets of Hancock as much as to save the town.

Hancock needed economic help, its leaders acknowledge. The town's population had hovered around 2,500 since World War II -- and the residents were getting older. Many of the best and brightest from each high school class were leaving to find work and settle in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Washington.

Meanwhile, the city's business base was becoming unsteady. Better-paying jobs at the General Motors plant in nearby Martinsburg, W.Va. and the Kelly Springfield tire plant in Cumberland left a shortage of hands in the orchards.

The building of the road brought visions of Holiday Inns and tourist dollars to Hancock. But prosperity from I-70 has proved, instead to be a cruel mirage. Much of the traffic that could have been Hancock's bread and butter goes rolling right through town, usually without even slowing down. There is not a single motel at any of the interstate's three exits to the town.

The reason is topography, and the beneficiary is a town 26 miles north -- Breezewood, Pa.

Hancock is on the north bank of the Potomac River, 92 miles northwest of the Capital Beltway, at the point in western Maryland where the state is only a mile and a half wide. Pennsylvania lies to the north, the river and West Virginia are to the south and there are mountains to the east and west. It has no room to expand except into the mountains.

But the mountains in and around Hancock are not like the graceful and sweeping hillocks of nearby Pennsylvania. These are riverbank humps -- nubby, steep and close together, vulnerable to erosion, difficult to drain and generally too scrubby to farm.

Worse yet, there simply wasn't enough room in the mountains to the north to build the typical cloverleafs that attract tourist-related businesses. And when I-70 arrived, the road builders made all three Hancock exits for westbound traffic emanate from the left lane. Cars coming down those ramps merge with traffic coming off the three eastbound exits, and together they all spill into Main Street.

Motorists getting off the interstate at Hancock cannot conveniently get back on without going most of the two miles through town, on Main Street.

The traffic jams along that two-lane street are a local legend. "On Friday night, when we mix the local people and the truckers, you can't even move out here," says one Main Street merchant. Meanwhile, at any time of day and night, it is common to see three dozen semitrailers parked snout to stern in front of the Park 'N' Dine.

Because of the clutter, national motel and restaurant chains have passed Hancock by and have built instead in Breezewood, where I-70 joins the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the terrain is much flatter.

"Hancock could be the Breezewood of Maryland," insists Terry Hepburn, 29, vice president of Hepburn Orchards, Hancock's second biggest fruit producer. "It would be a big help to the community."

Mayor Dave Sowers, a 72-year-old retired forester, has commissioned a study of right-hand exit and entrance ramps. "But I can't be optimistic," Sowers said. "The study would have to prove the engineering feasability, and I'm just not sure there is any.

Instead Sowers, who is midway through his second two-year term, is concentrating on modernizing and upgrading what Hancock already has.

Sowers and City Manager Alfred Martin plan to commit Hancock to a bigger debt than it has ever assumed before -- perhaps as much as $500,000 -- to fix up the sewer system and build a new town center along West Main Street.

Hancock's present sewers reflect the town's scattershot development.

Downtown, where the earliest settlement was started in 1749 by a farmer named Joseph Hancock, sewer lines are eight inches in diameter. To the east, the next part of town to be built, they are six inches. On the north edge of town, where the houses are newest, the lines are four inches.

"We want to put a shopping center on the north end, and we have plans for 60 new townhouses, but our sewer there won't take it," Sowers said. In addition, the city's fire equipment won't "mate" with the north end's four-inch water lines, "and that's a major hazard," Sowers said.

In addition, Sowers and Martin favor building the new town center, which would include a youth center, dental clinic, day-care center and a new town hall. The projected price is $200,000 for construction and $30,000 a year for utilities and maintenance.

"For a town with only 650 taxpayers and a budget of half a million a year, that's a lot of money," Martin Pointed out.

An obvious way to raise the money would be to increase property taxes, now pegged at $1 per $100 of assessed valuation, one of the lowest rates in Maryland. "If you're going to buy a mammoth," says Sowers, "you'd better be prepared to feed it."

But neither Sowers nor the town's four councilmen favor a tax increase. A major reason is that Hancock already faces 40 years of payments on a $127,000, 5 percent note, which went to replace the century-old water works last year.

"We just can't afford to get any further in debt," Sowers said. "But we've also got to bring things up to snuff so we can take care of ourselves. It's a dilemma."

"It's pretty much up to the town," said Martin, who became Hancock's and Washington County's first city manager this summer. "We've got to expand public facilities. Otherwise, growth won't happen, because it can't happen."

One industry Martin hopes to encourage is tourism. Hancock lies within half an hour's drive of excellent skiing, boating, hiking and white-water canoeing but, Martin says, "nobody's ever pushed them."

In addition, Martin hopes to "give the teen-agers something to do. That's a big problem now. Mostly, they just drive up and down Main Street." Drugs and drinking are major problems, too, he said.

But Hancock is hardly a ghost town looking for a place to happen.

The town's third bank, branch of Hagerstown Trust Company, the county's largest, is under construction on West Main Street. Within the last two years, the other two local banks have been bought out by bigger banks in the Washington area, "and that doesn't happen unless there's economic health in a community," fruit grower Hepburn noted.

Much of that economic health revolves around the fruit business, which is again prosperous, thanks to annual transfusions of migrant labor. Hancock annually ships more than a million bushels of apples and peaches to markets all over the country. Hepburn and its larger competitor, Fairview Orchards, grossed nearly $5 million between them in 1979.

And Lem Kirk Ford is doing pretty well, too, its owner says.

He jokes that people are buying his cars "because we're so far up in the hills that people can't get the newspapers to read about this energy crisis." On a more serious note, he says his gross has improved every year for the last five, despite persistent 15 percent unemployment within a 30-mile radius of Hancock.

But he wouldn't want his business to become much bigger, Kirk says and the same goes for Hancock itself.

"I think we have our limitations," Kirk said. "But it has never been my desire to be huge. I'd rather have a smaller town that's good and stable than something we can never keep up to."