To the average traveler on Rte. 1, Hyattsville is perhaps nothing more than another D.C. suburb in Prince George's County, a discordant collection of gas stations and car dealerships.

Hyattsville residents, however, prefer to think of their home turf in more distinctive small-town terms.

Police Chief Robert T. Perry, for instance, is proud to point out that not one murder has been committed within the town of 12,000 since 1976.

Mayor Tom Bass likes to talk about the pleasant residential area with its big frame houses, porch swings and bright azaleas.

And, where else but in a small town would the town's 99th birthday be celebrated with a parade?

The procession yesterday along Hyattsville's tree-shaded streets was the kind of informal, neighborly event where parade participants called out to parade-goers by name. "Heeey, Mrs. Thorpe!" a voice called from a 1918 Ford touring car.

Grace Thorpe, sitting with her friend Rose Perry on lawn chairs under a tree, looked momentarily perplexed, then said, "I believe he used to be my paper boy years ago."

Hyattsville, which is named for Christopher Hyatt, its first postmaster, was incorporated in 1886, so the celebration might rightfully come next year. And so it will, town officials promise.

"Next year, we'll have the big deal," said recreation supervisor Mark Pendleton. "This year . . . is the big buildup."

The hour-long parade had all the vital elements. Young girls in frothy pink and blue gowns waved from a flower bedecked float. Three palomino horses clopped along, followed by fire engines, Boy Scout troops and the Northwestern High School marching band.

A contingent of Shriners wearing glittery red fezzes rode go-carts, sometimes pausing to spin around in the middle of the street. Thunderbird convertibles in candy pink, yellow and aqua carried local politicians and dignitaries.

The onlookers pulled folding chairs onto Jefferson Street, or else watched from their porches or from blankets spread on their lawns. Carl Eberhardt stood on the curb with his dog, Augie.

"When I came here four years ago," said Eberhardt, 22, a University of Maryland student and Hyattsville resident, "I didn't like baseball and I didn't know how to play horseshoes. Now I do."

These days, Hyattsville is part of that string of communities in Prince George's County that blend one with another from the Northeast District line -- Mount Rainier to Brentwood to Hyattsville to Riverdale to College Park.

Aside from the car dealerships, gas stations, and convenience stores, there are few active businesses along Rte. 1, or Baltimore Avenue, as it is called in Hyattsville; many of the stores along the street are abandoned.

At the turn of the century, Hyattsville was one of the places where District residents headed when they decided to ride out "to the country," said Francis Geary, who is writing the town's history for its centennial.

"It was more or less a recreational place," said Geary, 59, a Hyattsville resident. "People came for the fresh air, to hunt and fish."

Gradually, Hyattsville became an industrial town, dotted with steam laundries and home to the Carter Motor Co., which produced the short-lived Washington automobile before going bankrupt in 1915, Geary said.

With the Depression in the 1930s, the town routinely directed its firefighters to round up the vagrants and take them to Burgess's Store for a bowl of soup, Geary said.

"That was the era of the hoboes passing through Hyattsville," Geary said. "Our family lived on Railroad Avenue, and on cold rainy nights, we might come home and find five, six, seven men asleep on our porch. The men told me if they were hungry, they always knew to look for the house with the most children in the yard and they'd get something to eat. There were six of us."

Perhaps Hyattsville's funniest story occurred during World War II, when nylon hose were scarce and thus coveted.

"A tractor-trailer with a load of hosiery was at the Melrose crossing one night when a train came along and cut it in half," said Geary. "The FBI was knocking on Hyattsville doors gathering up stockings for the next three weeks."

Nowadays, Hyattsville is home to employes and students from the nearby University of Maryland as well as people who work in the District. It is also something of a local government center; it already has a large county services building.

This year, the Maryland General Assembly approved more than $1 million -- and promised about $20 million more -- for a proposed county justice center in the same area.

"The nicest thing about Hyattsville," said Mayor Bass, 41, "is the quiet, residential-type atmosphere. It also has quite a bit of parkland for an inner-city area."

Ask about the town's worst feature, however, and the answer invariably gets back to Rte. 1.

"Having a major highway running right through the middle of your business district messes up your pedestrian traffic," he said. "But we like to think we're making great strides with our blighted downtown."