They're almost gone, the hillbillies who came to this old mill town on the Patapsco River from the mountains of Tennessee. But there was a time they called this Howard County seat "Little Sneedville," after the Hancock County, Tenn., seat from which many came.

No longer.

"I never heard that before," sniffed Enalee E. Bounds, the immediate past president of Historic Ellicott City Inc. -- whose credentials include her 23-year proprietorship of The Country Store, a gift and antiques shop.

Across Main Street, Dee Ellis, 38, a Tennessee-transplant and owner of Dee's Kitchen, said, "People came up here for jobs in the factories. Now it's just antiques shops. It lost a lot of the people. I still like it, but it don't have the dime stores, the grocery stores. The Tennessee people went back or live in apartments up on Rte. 40."

Ellicott City sits in a deep ravine, in a picturesque setting that resembles Appalachia. Its granite buildings slope down Main Street to the Patapsco and the old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad station.

Denise Pringle, owner of The Owl & The Pussycat gift shop, said that Washingtonians, especially, find in Ellicott City an atmosphere that has passed from the gentrified neighborhoods of the metropolitan area.

"Georgetown has outgrown this stage. Old Town Alexandria has outgrown this stage. It's naive, it's quiet here, it's quaint. Georgetown isn't like this anymore. It's crazy. It's like a carnival. Old Town now is polished, finished. It's fun in Ellicott City. It's a fun little laid-back town."

But where mills that produced cotton and rayon yarn once fueled the local economy, "Historic Ellicott City" itself has become today's leading industry. As part of it, the local preservation group is sponsoring a country fair and antiques auction this weekend, to raise money to restore an aged log cabin.

The oldest occupied structure in town is said to have been built in 1789 by one of the Ellicotts after whom the town was named.

Its current occupants include The Forget-Me-Knot Factory, specializing in "Romantic Gifts, Victorian Bridal Accessories, Floral Arrangements," and owned by Nancy Gibson, 32, who lives in the new town of Columbia.

Soon, she'll be adding a Victorian bridal salon to her business. "You know when you're in 'romance,' you just can't miss with bridal," she said.

Gibson is president of the Ellicott City Business Association, whose 33 members do not include the few remaining old businesses predating the town's current renaissance. The oldtime outsiders include Dee's ("set up for the working man," its owner said), a shoe repair shop and Yates Market.

"They promote mostly antiques," said Cheryl (Yates) Libertini about the business association. "We don't fit."

Some of the new shop owners speak as though the town's existence began with their arrival, with Enalee Bounds considered the pioneer.

By contrast, Samuel Caplan's family came here in 1895, from Richmond by way of Washington. At age 85, he is the oldest resident "on the Main Street in Ellicott City, where I've resided in the same place for 85 years."

Caplan owns about 30 properties on Main Street, and used to own the building that now houses The Country Store. He still owns the building that used to be Caplan's department store, where he lives upstairs with his wife of 42 years, Gertrude. But the store his family bought from the father of famed orchestra leader Meyer Davis went out of business seven years ago.

Caplan's department store is now L'Atelier Imports, which sells brass beds and oak furniture. Easton Sons funeral home has been converted to an art gallery. The old movie house is The Little Theater on the Corner. The Rosenstock Building, formerly a clothing store, now is carved up into boutiques.

One thing that old and new Ellicott City have had in common is disaster. The town has survived major floods in 1868, 1972 and 1976 and is rebounding from a fire last Nov. 30 that destroyed seven businesses -- including a popular bakery that accounted for much foot traffic -- on Main Street.

"The publicity on the fire killed us," said antiques dealer Charles Bramble, who has lived here eight years. "It hurt."

Now the rubble has been cleared and there is a wooden fence with signs that promise renewal: "Ellicott Square in Historic Ellicott City," which will have six shops and second floor offices, and "Leidig's Bakery is coming back SOON. Other retail and office space available." Scorch marks on the side of the Commercial & Farmers Bank's have been glazed over.

Some even view the disasters as cleansing for the community. The 1972 flood "really cleaned out a lot of the undesirables, merchants and people who lived here," said Toni Schwartz, owner of the Iron Rail gift shop, a victim of the fire and temporarily relocated down the block in the Rosenstock building.

"It has rebounded after every disaster," she said. "We must be the chosen people. We're the old world of the future."

The Ellicott City revival has gone through phases, several of the merchants say. "We went through the hippie stage -- a lot of young kids trying to start businesses," Schwartz said. Most didn't last.

There was also the railroad phase, when the new shops took their names from the time when Ellicott City was the first railroad terminus in the nation.

"The railroad names were kind of lost in the transition," said Pringle, of The Owl & The Pussycat, which formerly was called The Iron Horse.

Now the town's promoters emphasize what they say are its "quality shops" offering specialized merchandise and personalized service.

"If you're looking for that special gift, you can find it here," said Kelly Prestac, an employe of the Iron Rail, which specializes in paperweights. "You can't find it in any mall, that's for sure."

Louis Smith, 62, is one of the holdouts, preferring tradition over trend. He repairs shoes as he has since age 12, in a building that has housed cobblers for a century.

Back then, he said, chuckling, "There weren't antiques. There was a drug store, shoe store, clothing store. When I was working here as a youngster, everybody up and down the street you knew. Today, nobody. I get customers from out of town, people who used to live here."

A few doors away, Charlene Townsend held forth in Maxine's Antiques, the store her mother started 18 years ago in what once was a bank. "There used to be a lot of townies," she said, "but they've mostly gone by the wayside. They're just too poor to live here anymore."

Down the street, Frederick Skipper, 75, a retired factory worker, lives above Discoveries, a crafts emporium that used to be a grocery store. When it was, he helped out stocking goods and taking out the trash. With the new shop, he no longer has a job aod his rent has been raised.

"There are mostly new people now," he said. "I don't hardly know my next door neighbor. I wish I could tell you more, but I don't know none of these people around here now. Those days are gone forever."