They pack them in at the Conochocheague Redmen Tribe No. 84 and at the American Legion Post 202 two blocks away, but at the old bar situated between the two social clubs. Peck's Tavern, business has never been worse.

"I used to get a right nice crowd," bemoaned tavern owner Tommy Potts one night last week as he served half a dozen or so patrons. "The clubs in killing me."

There is only one major difference between the bar and the clubs: gambling. Here in Washington County, gambling is illegal in the taverns, but it has been legal -- sort of -- and quite a big business for the fraternal organizations and clubs that use its tax-exempt proceeds to keep beer and food prices low, and even to finance fancy new buildings. It finally reached the point where the tavern owners began complaining that they were unable to compete.

They have put pressure on the local political and judicial establishment, and the treatment accorded the booming and beneficent social institutions is changing. Several lodges and veterans groups -- despite their contributions to charity, espousal of good fellowship and promotion of the American Way -- have been prosecuted recently for illegal gambling.

The conviction of one club is being appealed and two other clubs face sentencing this month. No other prosecutions are going forward at the moment and, while politicans argue about changing the laws, the bettng and the controversy continues.

Powerful personalities are inolved on both sides, including a judge who is a former state senator and a lawyer who is a former judge, both of whom received threatening letters. At the same time, political as well as petty fortunes are on the line and the very social fabric of Washington County -- so interwoven with its clubs -- is at stake.

The county's 22 clubs claim a total membership of 1.5 million.That is more than 10 times the population of this jurisdiction some 60 miles west of Washington, but the figure is explained by the large number of individuals who hold memberships in several clubs simultaneously.

"This is sort of a club town," said George Rash, managing editor of the Hagerstown Daily Mail who belongs to three clubs and recently defended them in an editorial commentary.

"They are institutions with our social structure that do not have to apologize for their existence," he wrote. "There would be a great void and emptiness in the community and in the lives of thousands if they did not exist.

They range from staunchly blue-collar groups with annual dues of $10 to the elite Elks of Hagerstown, a veritable "Who's Who" of the county, which charges $30 a year plus a $200 initiation fee. The Mooser, for example, boast 7,000 members, the larges chapter in Maryland and among the top 10 in the nation.

Proceeds from gambling have helped the clubs employ 200 persons whose earnings total more than $900,000 a year. The money also has helped some clubs move from moderate quarter to spanking new buildings on spacious landscaped sites. The Elks, for example paid up a 10-year morgage on their new quarters after only five years in 1980., The Moose moved into a large new building two years ago.

To their members the clubs and fraternal organizations of Washington County and more than cozy and comfortable places to meet. Member eat, drink had call reunions and wedding recepitions within their confines. And, day in and day out, often seven days a week, they gamble.

They pay a quarter and sign a sheet for the daily drawing, and many also spend 50 cents for packets of five numbers kept in "tip jars," in hopes of winning $1 to $10 immediately or $100 after the last batch of numbers in the jar is sold.

Given the warm, congenial atmosphere for gambling at the clubs, the lines at state lottery outlets are short. In Baltimore, the average per capita bet on the lottery each week in the first half of this years was $3.02. In Somerset County on the Eastern Shore, it was $1.17 and in St. Mary's in Southern Maryland, it was 91 cents. Here in Washington the County, where club gambling thrives, the state lottery brought in a modest 20 cents per capita weekly wager.

Until recent months, club members say, they assumed that their way of life was legal under 1949 Maryland law that allows nonprofit "carnival, bazaar or raffle" gambling by clubs and fraternal organizations in 15 counties. Washington and Frederick Counties were added to the law six years ago, thaknks to legislation cosponsored by State Sens. Edward Thomas (R-Frederick) and John P Corderman (D-Wasington).

But Corderman is now a circuit judge deeply involved in the antigambling crusade. In March 1980, he directed the grand jury to investigate club gambling. In his charge Corderman noted the complaints of tavern owners and cited a state attorney general's opinion that the law allowed only "occasional" club gambling. When the panel discovered that it could not issue indictments because the alleged crimes were misdemeanors, the judge told State's Attorney John P. Salvatore it was his job to prosecute.

"No presecutor wants to stick his head in a buzz saw, and that's what it is," said Salvatore, a judicial aspirant. But he proceeded, calling the clubs together and asking for one willing to be a test case. None volunteered.

An undercover investigation ensued. Formal charges were brought against nine clubs. Four cases have been tried. Corderman sat as judge on two of the jury cases, objecting to certain portions of the defense summary when Salvatore did not. "Are you asleep?" he once asked the prosecutor in open court, according to those present.

Corderman's motivation in all of this is a mystery to many of the principals, who offer unproven and contradictory conspiracy theories linking the judge with the taverns. But Corderman's new resolve against gambling does not seem to be one-sided; he also has cracked down on tavern gambling, imposing stiff $1,000 fines and announcing that future violators would face prison terms.

Further fueling the fires, Corderman has refused reporters access to tapes of bench conferences at which his alleged conflicts were discussed, and even to a public court file containing motions made in open court seeking his disqualification from gamblig cases. The file is on his desk.

As the trials proceeded this summer, things go nastier and nastier between Corderman and Paul Ottinger, a former judge who represents the clubs.

"If I hadn't been a circuit court judge, I wouldn't have the courage to do what Jim doing," Ottinger said. "Somebody's got to stand up to him."

Because legislative intent is an issue, Ottinger demanded that Corderman, as a former state senator, testify at one of the trials over which the judge himself was presiding. "Refused service," Corderman scrawled on the summons sheet.

Then, when a story in the local paper quoted club officials as forecasting financial disaster for charities receiving club donations in the wake of convictions, Corderman issued a gag order that neither the prosecution nor defense had sought. The order was lifted by another judge -- who is a member of a club -- while Corderman was on vacation.

Cordernam refuses to discuss gambling or his judicial behavior for the record. Publicly, he will say only that ambition, a motive often ascribed to him, has nothing to do with it. The 39-year-old, activist judge is known however, to feel, that the law's intent was to permit "occasional gaming and that clubs have misused their charitable nonprofit status to reap unwarranted windfalls at the expense of private taverns and restaurants.

Cordenman's apparently unpopular view if shared by Del. Paul Muldowney (D-Washington), a close friend and former campaign manager, who cosponsored a bill this year to restrict gaming to once a month. Muldowney's bill failed to win Senate approval. A Senate bill, cosponsored by Thomas and Victor Cushwa (D-Washington), whom Corderman beat for the Senate in 1974, tried to resolve the problem by permitting unlimited tavern gambling as well. It also went nowhere.

Gambling is almost certain to become an issue in the General Assembly and in county electoral politics next year.

"I don't think the Legislature has the [courage] to deal with the problem," said Muldowney, who may challenge Cushwa for the Senate next year.

Meanwhile, the Williamsport American Legion comes up for sentencing by Corderman on Sept. 15, and the judge has said that his decision may rest on the extent to which the club's gambling proceeds go to charity. Information in the hands of the judge and prosecutor may say otherwise, but Legion officials contend say that their organization gives generously.

One night last week, members sat around in the Legion hall and listed the worthy recipients of their largesse, among them a camp for underprivileged children, local baseball teams, a nursing student, and just about anyone who wants an American Flag.

"And last, but not least, we keep good old Americanism alive," said one man.

"Yeah, good old Americanism," retorted another, "Beer, women and gambling."