Kip Stowell, who serves on the City Council, thinks it's "a spirit from way back or the way the air currents move through the gap here" in the Blue Ridge Mountains 60 miles west of Washington.

To many, it seems as good an explanation as any for a frustrating fact of life in this town made famous by the 1859 raid of abolitionist John Brown: A lot of the folks in Harpers Ferry just can't get along.

That might seem strange in a small town filled with tourists soaking up history and retirees seeking peace and quiet. But many, if not most, of the 375 citizens of Harpers Ferry seem to thrive on a good fight. Neighbors argue with neighbors on even the most mundane local issue and the end result is that the town has become something of a regional laughing stock.

The most recent round of fussing and feuding came to a head if not a conclusion recently when the mayor abruptly quit after only three months in office. Normally mild-mannered Neal Randell, a sometime actor who works for the National Park Service, had wanted to restore "harmony and peacefulness in this little town, so every little decision we had to make -- placing of traffic signs, patching a street, work on the water lines -- didn't have to be made in an atmosphere of acriminious argument."

Instead, he said, his efforts had been undermined by an "ex officio parallel government."

Randell, who critics said could not be mayor and work for the National Park Service, which owns much of the town, was soon replaced by Bradley Nash, the man he'd narrowly defeated. Nash was appointed by the council Randell could not control. And no sooner had that occurred than some citizens went to court to overturn the appointment, a challenge dismissed last week.

Divisions tend to defy simple explanations in Harpers Ferry. Newcomers and natives can be found on both sides of every argument. Personalities prevail over issues. And in a town with so many retirees from government and politics, the simple lure of battle is a factor in itself.

"It's the result of so many people with so much experience having time on their hands," says Braun Hamstead, Jefferson County's prosecuting attorney. "They all want to throw their weight around. There is only so much room for so many heavies in an itty-bitty pond."

In fact there are two towering figures around whom the factions have formed:

* D.D. (Dixie) Kilham, 61, a loquacious real estate entrepreneur and sometime impresario, has ancestral roots here he renewed 26 years ago when he moved from Baltimore and bought the Victorian-era Hilltop House Hotel, which he still owns and operates. Randell, despite his stated desire to avoid the label, is identified as a member of the Kilham clique.

* Hiram (Bill) Brawley, 64, deputy postmaster general under President Kennedy and a longtime political aide to U.S. Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson (D-Wash.), retired to Harpers Ferry, he says, to escape politics, then served two stormy terms as the town's mayor. It was Brawley who complained to the Park Service that Randell had a conflict of interest as mayor.

Kilham and Brawley, and their supporters, both blame the town's disharmony on the other and continually question each other's motives and actions. Both say the town would be peaceful if only the other man weren't around.

A sort of third force who has at different times aligned himself with or against the other two is Nash, a robust 81-year old who served as secretary to Herbert Hoover and as undersecretary of commerce and assistant secretary of the Air Force under Dwight Eisenhower. A Bostonian by birth, Nash was mayor before Brawley unseated him. Nash has recently written part of a book on staffing and organizing the presidency and is confident he can manage the affairs of Harpers Ferry. "You may say the mayor is calm," he said the other day.

Amanda Goudie, however, is not. The former Georgetown coffee house operator lives in an old house on land that straddles the line dividing Harpers Ferry and the adjoining town of Bolivar. Goudie ran for mayor of both towns this year and received one vote in Harpers Ferry and six in Bolivar. "It's nuts," she says of the place. "Everyone I know who has an ounce of brains wants to leave because of this insanity."

Among those who have departed recently is the police chief Goudie once bit on the arm when he tried to impound her car. "It's unbelieveable such a small group of people could live so close physically and be so apart spiritually," said William Gallinaro, who left his post here last month for the more hospitable climate of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Gallinaro, an ex-New York City policeman, Senate investigator and Mafia-prober, was brought here under a grant to the National Park Service engineered by Brawley. The reasoning was that the town police force should be funded by U.S. tax dollars because Harpers Ferry's status as a national historic park attracts 1.6 million visitors a year. Gallinaro and Brawley fell out, Brawley says, after the chief switched sides in the local political wars.

Since the park's dedication in 1959, the centennial of John Brown's raid, the town has gradually changed from an economically depressed community that never recovered from the Civil War and several severe floods from the nearby Shenandoah and Potomac rivers into a tourist attraction increasingly populated by Washington commuters and retirees.

"Naturally, they look for leadership," says Dixie Kilham. "One man has changed all of this: Bill Brawley. The long and the short of it is since Bill Brawley's been here, he's constantly dividing the community. I've got a file on him."

Brawley, for his part, counters that Harpers Ferry's problems stem from "a little group, controlled and influenced by Kilham. They are opposed to everything . . . .I think it's the Dixie Kilham curse."

"You would love living here," Brawley's wife, Hazel, said, "if you didn't get involved in politics."

Brawley, who describes himself as "sort of a hell-to-leather guy who wants to get things done," won the mayoralty with Kilham's support in 1977. The alliance didn't last long. Kilham complained about the banning of tape recorders from town meetings and what was described as a "gag rule" restricting public participation at the sessions. Brawley, in turn, charged Kilham with obstructing his efforts to bring law and order and federal largesse to Harpers Ferry. It went on and on.

Except for an unsuccessful run for council in 1979, Neal Randell had watched it all from the sidelines. This June, he planned to try again but at the last moment opted for mayor instead. What changed his mind, he said, was the unopposed mayoral candidacy of Nash, whom he viewed as a front for Brawley.

Brawley, who had decided not to seek another term, saw Randell as a front for Kilham and wrote to every voter endorsing Nash and a list of council candidates. Randell, he wrote, "might be placed here to serve some special interest -- if not the Park Service, then Dixie Kilham." Voters also received official-looking "sample" ballots, and Clifton Butts, who had never even had a parking ticket, was arrested on a felony charge. The charge was later dropped but a grand jury probe ensued. Last Monday, the panel announced it would issue no indictments but said it found "poor judgment" in the conduct of the election.

Randell beat Nash by 10 votes. But the luckless victor narrowly lost control of the council and couldn't get his appointments approved.

Through it all, Randell also fought with the Park Service to retain both his job and his mayoralty. While the dispute was working its way through the bureaucracy, he was temporarily assigned to the C & O Canal Park headquarters in nearby Maryland. His resignation ended that controversy but left little else settled.

From Florida, Gallinaro, the former police chief, predicts continued chaos for the little town he left. In Harpers Ferry, he said, "it was so penny-ante, every little thing. . . What you find there, you don't find in, if I can use the word, a regular city where people have more important things to discuss."