Shortly before 6 a.m., the procession of horse-drawn wagons started up the northbound shoulder of Rte. 5. Observers have counted as many as 48 wagons heading up the road on a single day. But last week, eight had passed the parking lot of a small shopping center by 7 a.m.

The drivers holding the reins stood atop stacked baskets of tobacco, which had a golden glow in the early morning sunlight. The steel wheels left their marks on the edge of the roadway before the wagons stopped at Farmers Warehouse, where the drivers, speaking German to each other, unloaded their cargoes.

It was the weekly Wednesdays-only ritual of Amish tobacco growers taking their crop to market. Jimmie Schultz, whose warehouse caters to most of these transplanted Pennsylvania Dutch, has had an Amish-only day for eight years now.

Horses and horsepower, he said, just don't mix.

The Amish of southern Maryland, about 100 families who live just inside St. Mary's County about 50 miles from Washington, remain mostly a people apart, but they are well integrated into the agriculture of their surroundings.

"They grow a good light tobacco, not overfertilized," Schultz said. "It's well handled -- it's graded out, sorted out good, in the bundle and in the basket. The quality is really very good."

Amish tobacco is likely to bring the highest prices, another non-Amish man said. "And they don't put a whole lot of chemicals down to make weight. It doesn't cost them as much to raise because they use horse manure. In two years, that land is rich. When they plant tobacco, I mean it just keeps on growing. The land will grow anything you put on it."

In the historical scheme of things, the Amish are relative newcomers to the peninsula between the Patuxent and Potomac rivers.

Eight families led the way from Lancaster County, Pa., to southern Maryland in time for the 1940 spring planting. They came, in part, to escape Pennsylvania laws requiring school attendance for children beyond the age of 14. Maryland was more lenient, although its rules were later tightened, prompting special legislation in 1967 exempting the Amish. Today as before, Amish children attend only grade school.

The Amish settlers turned swampy ground into productive farmland. In time, they grew tobacco and, in recent years, acres of tomatoes for ketchup.

"There's different crops. Some people do this and some people do that," said an older Amish man, unloading his tobacco. But he declined to say what else he grew, or to give his name. "Now, you're getting to questions I'm just gonna leap over because I'm not anxious to have publicized what I really do."

Mostly, he said, he was "retired now." He pronounced it "retard," in the southern Maryland way. "I came down from Pennsylvania when I was just a boy," he said.

A younger Amish man did not directly decline to discuss his crop. He invited me to follow him a way, but no further. "I gotta walk way out here and see if the horses are all right. I'll be back." he said. He wasn't.

A third Amish man said his people grew better tobacco because they cared most about doing a good, painstaking job, while others were more interested in profits. "You're not getting anything out of me," he said, and laughed.

"Once you get to know them, they're fine people," said Schultz, the tobacco warehouseman. "I know every one of them, very personally. They're all very, very fine people. Salt-of-the-earth people, I guess you'd say. If we had a lot more people with their character, I'd say we wouldn't need all the law enforcement officers and government agencies.

"And, contrary to what a lot of people think, they're very sociable, likable, friendly people."

One evening, I met a St. Mary's Amish man who seemed to crave contact with the outside world, even though he drove a horse and buggy and wore plain garments, a patriarchal beard and straw-brimmed hat.

On Friday nights, he regularly ate pizza, drank coffee and conversed with outsiders in a small restaurant off Rte. 5. He spoke in low tones, as if imparting secrets. Often, what he said was funny, in a wry, country way, and he knew it, judging from his laughter.

What's so special about Amish tobacco? "They put a little bit of horse manure on it, to give it special flavor."

Why do they call his kinfolks' shop a notions store? "You got a notion you want it," he said.

And so it went with this Old Order raconteur late into the night.

He was not a farmer, he insisted. "I got less than two acres," he said. Nonetheless, he had two cows, three horses, 50 chickens and a vegetable garden large enough to feed his wife and eight children. By trade, he was a blacksmith and carpenter, who built tobacco barns for "English" (non-Amish).

Although he never drove a car himself, he rode in the truck of his non-Amish employes to the work site.

"If I wasn't so tired, I'd sure like to ride home in your buggy," said a young woman who worked at the pizza parlor, "but I got to get home faster."