Perched on a ridge in the foothills of Sugarloaf Mountain, Barnesville is a twon of people descended from 18th-century settlers, where later generations have clung to the village lifestyle, resisting change for the sake of convenience.

Residents prefer to drive six miles for groceries rather than allow a store to open in their midst, and the Town Commission has passed a zoning ordinance to keep it that way. The only businesses allowed there must meet the approval of residents. So far that category includes a furniture store, an antique shop, a well-digging service and an undertaker, William C. Hilton, whose family has served the town since 1866.

Now town residents are considering yet another step to help perserve Barnesville's history: a historical designation.

About 20 persons crowded into Town Clerk Julia Jeffers' home, itself a historic site (until 1938 it was a clapboard schoolhouse), for a Town Commission meeting last week to discuss the idea of establishing a historical district. They heard Mike F. Dwyer, historian for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, explain how they could declare the houses, the church buildings, the hilly streets -all of Barnesville, in fact -a historical district.

The residents seemed to like the idea, Jeffers said, and on June 14 at 8 p.m. the commission will hold its town meeting a week early, at the pavilion on the grounds of St. Mary's Church just off Barnesville road, to continue the discussions. Jeffers said representatives from historical commissions will explain how the town can go about becoming a historical site.

Officials hope to attract a majority of the town's 143 residents, so they can discuss the options and perhaps vote on a plan for an official historical area.

Barnesville has many historical buildings. A cemetery behind St. Mary's Catholic Church contains the graves of 16 men who died when yellow fever hit crews digging the C&O Canal in the early 1830s; Mary Morningstar's home, like others in the town, is built onto what was once a log cabin, and the dwelling is said to date from 1743.

The town also has its traditions. When it is time for local elections, voters step into J.R. Lillard's garage and slip their ballots into a cigar box. Residents still get their mail at the local post office, a room at the home of Ida Lou Price, who in 1979, after 29 years as the local postmistress, handed the job to Mary L. Offutt, who lives across the street.

Though the residents are keenly aware of the town's historical identity, Dwyer said, Montgomery County and state planners might overlook the aesthetics of what he called "the county's most rural, picturesque village." He said some type of official historical status would help protect the town from the encroachment of developers.

Dwyer said historical designation "doesn't flatly deny the permission" for development, "but it does slow that process down." Barnesville also is empowered to pass its own zoning laws, Dwyer noted, a more effective control over preserving the community character.

State laws allow any municipality to charter its own historic preservation code, and Barnesville, which is not covered by the county's preservation law, could adopt that law as its own by a vote of the Town Commission, Dwyer said.

Barnesville residents also could ask the Maryland Historical Trust to accept their town as a historic district, and that listing could be forwarded to the U.S. Park Service's National Register of Historic Districts, according to Dwyer.

Jeffers, who in October will have spent 30 years as Barnesville's clerk, said she believes residents will support one of the options. "We have fought any development," she said. "We just want to stay an old town, an older community that runs itself."