As 65-year-old Harry Wells remembers it, when he was growing up in Falls Church about seven miles from the White House, "the streets were almost all dirt" and the tiny town featured barns, orchards, cows, horses, chickens and outhouses.

Not today. Thirty-five years after he began his career as a Falls Church official--when he first was hired as a town clerk at a salary of $67 a week--Wells' hometown is a full-fledged, albeit small, city. And not just any city, but the second wealthiest in the nation with a per capita income of $12,885.

Sometime this summer, after 20 years as city manager, Wells will retire. There are many who say they believe that he has had as much to do with the community's current status as any individual.

Wells, for instance, presides over what he calls "an oasis" of public parks and buildings in Virginia's smallest city, including a senior center, a community center, a library, a nearby group home for the mentally retarded and the 19th century Cherry Hill Farm, preserved as a token of the town's humble beginning, with barns, corncrib and, of course, an outhouse.

On a knoll in the midst of all this is the city hall, now being expanded after almost two decades of discussion.

Wells will not only be leaving his imprint on Falls Church, he also will be leaving his name. Three years ago, at the suggestion of councilman Harold Silverstein, the City Council named the city hall the Harry E. Wells Building.

It was Silverstein who, in his first council term, led the 1963 council search for a city manager "all over the East and Midwest." Silverstein said the search committee ended up recommending "mild, easygoing" Harry Wells, the trusted city employe who loved his town but did not have a college degree.

Wells describes his own and the city's almost rags-to-riches progress in the past four decades as the equivalent of going "from horses to the moon."

Even in 1942, when the rural town had two fast methods of transportation into Washington--the trolley and the W&OD railroad--horses were as common as cars, Wells says. Before entering the Army, he recalls, he went out on his final Falls Church date with his future wife, Kathleen McGinnis, on horseback.

When Wells went through basic training at Fort Riley, Kan., he found he was in a horse troop. "I was one of the last men to go through horse troop training, before they mechanized things," he said.

After the war, in which he became an Air Force intelligence officer, Wells studied public administration at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, living in a trailer camp with his wife and other GI students in what he describes "as probably the happiest time of my life." But he never was able to complete requirements for a college degree.

He talks of horses and trolleys--"and we're back to trolleys again, only now they call it Metro"--to emphasize just how much the village of Falls Church, founded in 1699, has changed.

Now, the city has imported Volvo police cars outside city hall, a display of wealth that some city critics call "ostentatious." But Wells says, "We leased the Volvos from a local dealer after we had years of trouble with unreliable police cars. . . . It was an economy measure, and it's still saving us money."

Falls Church is not ritzy, local officials say, despite the Volvos and what the 1980 census says is its per capita income of $12,885 (it is followed closely by Arlington, Alexandria and Montgomery County, all in the top 10 in per capita income in the nation).

"There are no millionaires that I know of in Falls Church," Silverstein says. "We're just a well-to-do community with modest, older homes, a lot of government employes, professional and business people."

Wells, say those who know him, reflects the city and its council.

Mayor Carol DeLong describes him as a modest, nonpartisan manager "who has a feeling of respect for citizens and they for him. It's been a long and pleasurable association . . . though I doubt we'll be considering anyone to replace him without a college degree, and perhaps will be looking for at least a master's degree."

Last week, the council approved putting notices in professional magazines seeking a new city manager, and Wells expects to bow out graciously sometime close to his 66th birthday this summer.

Wells is not the only member of his family to serve Falls Church. His elder brother, Claude, preceded him as town clerk in the late 1940s and recommended his younger brother when he left to start a clothing store. Claude returned to city service in 1974, running and winning election as city comptroller, a post that he holds today at age 68.

Claude, who is competing in several running events this month in the Golden Olympics, describes "young Harry" as "a levelheaded person and a good athlete."

Harry was on the Western High School basketball team and still plays tennis several times a week, which he says helped him recover several years ago from cancer of the lymph glands and partial paralysis.

"I feel I'm a good person," Wells says. "I try to help people, always be available to answer questions and do things. I've kept an open door policy . . . and worked to improve the quality of life for residents. But I've always been nonpartisan when it comes to local politics."

Wells is popular with city staff members.

"It was like one big family when Harry came. There were so few of us," says Evelyn Martin, who was hired as a water department clerk by Claude Wells just before Harry arrived. "And he hasn't changed a bit. He's managed to remain warm and interested in each and every employe."