With hand-holding gingerbread men at his feet, Old King Cole towers over U.S. Rte. 40, his left hand pointing the way to the Enchanted Forest, a family-owned theme park that's been a fixture on the highway for 26 years.

Howard E. Harrison Jr., inspired by nursery rhymes he read to his boys, built the park and the jolly-faced figure drivers can't overlook. He and the two sons who grew up in the business attribute its success in no small part to the giant standing at its entrance. "The entrance is designed to have a visual impact on the customer, to conjure in a child's mind a montage of fantasy," says Howard E. Harrison III. Taking it down, he adds, "would be devastating to my business."

But the highway beautification movement of a decade ago has caught up with such vintage signposts along the old highways of Howard County -- including also the Foot-Long Hot Dog and Poole's Evergreen Inn signs on U.S. Rte. 1. Unless the County Council changes the law, Old King Cole and some 350 other signs will come down early next year. That prospect upsets not only sign owners such as Harrison but a number of architects and historians who regard the signs as vintage examples of American folk art.

"It would be a pity if we lose them in the '80s and they become recognized in the 90s," said Denise Scott Brown, a Philadelphia architect who, with her husband Robert Venturi, are the leading national defenders of the commercial strip.

"I was shocked to learn the Enchanted Forest will be affected," said Peter H. Smith, a director of the Society for Commercial Archeology.

To keep King Cole and others of his ilk, County Executive J. Hugh Nichols has suggested that the old signs be given a new 25-year lease on life. His proposal drew 150 citizens to an emotional County Council hearing Wednesday night, most of them small businessmen backing the idea. The proposal also attracted a revived Ad Hoc Committee for Sign Control, which fought for the original legislation and was on hand to oppose any change.

The county's current law, passed in 1972, is regarded as among the nation's strictest. It banned outright any new roadside adornments that failed to rigidly conform to the new rules, but gave the 350 or so businesses with them already in place until next March to comply. More than half were -- and remain -- on Rte. 40 and Rte. 1, highways whose heydays harken back to the slower-moving era before the interstates.

Driving these roads still offers a glimpse of a time before the superhighways, when cross-country travel was often a more visually cluttered, if less speedy, experience. By the 1960s, however, many people had come to regard the sign-drenched strip as a garish eyesore.

This aesthetic view was boosted by Lady Bird Johnson's highway beautification campaign. It resulted in national legislation banning billboards from within 600 feet of interstates and sparked laws around the country controlling billboards and signs.

The Howard County version, after intensive arguments and compromises, allowed existing billboards to remain forever but gave the free-standing signs only a 10-year grace period. All new signs, and eventually the old ones, were to be restricted in height depending on their distance from the roadway. Under the law, similar signs in many instances would be relegated to the rear of buildings they are intended to announce.

The Valencia Motel in Laurel faces what its management regards as a particularly ludicrous situation because of its location in the median of Route 1. Under the setback requirement, manager Howard Wood said, signs would be "closer to the opposite side of the road" than the side it faced.

Fifteen of the motel's 23 employes trooped to the hearing to express their dismay. "This is one group that would all be out of a job," said owner Ida Fischer who said the signs are essential to attract tourists to her vintage motor court. Echoed Vickie Halterman, who works in her grandfather's Dorsey Glass and Radiator Service: "You make us take down our signs, we may as well shut our doors. You make my grandfather go out of business, you're shutting down my children's business."

"These are ma and pop places by and large, locally owned and employing county residents," said Arthur Franz, attorney for the Howard Chamber of Commerce and Laurel and Elkridge business groups. "These are not multinational corporations. It's gonna be a big burden for these people."

Several businessmen said it will cost $10,000 and more to remove and replace their present signs. But to the vocal minority on the other side, such costs are inconsequential compared to what they regard as the benefits. Thanks to the present law, said Franc Miller, "you won't find golden arches reaching to the sky or whirling buckets of chicken" among the new signs that have gone up since the law's enactment.

Miller mentioned Columbia, Howard County's new town of 50,000, as a community whose "signage identified various products and services available without assaulting your eyeballs with oversized plastic constructions, flashing lights and block letters six to eight feet high."

In fact, 32 seemingly inconspicious signs sprinkled throughout the new town do not meet current requirements and will have to be replaced at a cost of $40,000, according to Fred Pryor, vice-president of the Columbia Association, which supports sign legislation generally but thinks removing them from the new town will be "an unnecessary financial burden for the community."

Dennis Frank, whose Ritz Motel's neon sign helps light up Rte. 1 in Elkridge, said he gets lost in Columbia as it is. "I was looking for a restaurant over there," he said. "I was in the area and didn't see it."