The lead story in the newspaper here last week was about a 4-H fashion show, while at the bottom of the page was a story about the possibility of a McDonald's coming to this valley community five miles west of Frederick.

The stories reflected a town in transition, one that is holding onto its rural heritage but is big enough, perhaps, to attract a fast-food chain.

Also in transition is the newspaper. Owned by the same family for five generations, the eight-page weekly was sold a year and a half ago to an outsider who has plans for modernization.

The Valley Register, published here on West Main Street every Friday for 142 years, is believed to be the last letterpress newspaper in the state, and the only one to use linotype exclusively. For the time being, there are no fancy computers to set the type, and no photo offset press to print them.

The paper is produced on four old linotype machines, which set one line at a time from molten lead, and a turn-of-the-century letterpress that runs off sheets of newsprint, each with room for four pages.

The paper first appeared on Aug. 2, 1844, as a Whig Party organ. It was a time when Middletown was a regional farming center and a thoroughfare on a major westerly route, the National Road.

After the paper was sold to the Rhoderick family that year, it became Republican in editorial outlook. Pro-Union during the Civil War, its editor fled for a week into Pennsylvania to escape the Confederate advance.

Today it serves a community of 2,000 that is no longer the agricultural hub it once was. At rush hour, Main Street, also designated Alternate Rte. 40, is heavily congested with the traffic of commuters north to Hagerstown and southeast to Frederick and Washington.

Big Victorian houses line the main drag, and on the town's outskirts are hundreds of the suburban-style houses that have given the valley a new look in the past decades.

Appealing to both the old-timers and the newcomers is sometimes difficult, said the Register's editor, Carmel McCaffrey, who lives in one of the new subdivisions. The church news and community items interest the older readers, while school coverage appeals to the younger families, she said.

Many of the newcomers continue to subscribe only to the metropolitan dailies, she said.

Meanwhile, the Register retains its distinctly local flavor. Leading the paper in recent weeks were a three-paragraph short about the upcoming Middletown firefighters' carnival and an item about the impending visit of the Frederick County Red Cross Bloodmobile.

Also reported was the 90th birthday of Harry Bussard, who still works six days a week pumping gas at his grandson Barry's service station.

The paper relies heavily on handouts and on community correspondents, who write about births, wedding showers and household visitors. Other stories and editorials are written by McCaffrey, a native of Ireland who has lived in the area for nine years.

The community news travels well, McCaffrey said: Among the Register's subscribers are 224 who live outside the county or state. Many are former residents who have retired to Florida, Arizona or California, she said.

At its prosperous peak in the 1940s, the Register had 2,500 subscribers and 15 employes, including half a dozen linotype operators. It printed three weekly papers serving Middletown, Thurmont and Mount Airy, a dozen high school papers and the Shepherd College Picket.

But then the school papers all went to offset in the 1960s, and Carlton Rhoderick decided to close the Mount Airy paper and sell the Catoctin Enterprise in Thurmont and the Middletown Valley Register.

With four grown children happily pursuing other interests and a conversion to photo offset seemingly inevitable, Rhoderick, 61, decided it was time to sell the family enterprise and quit the business.

The sale, to John F. Saxon, a former Delaware newspaperman who lives in nearby Braddock Heights during the week and in Milford, Del., weekends, was relatively easy. Quitting for Rhoderick has been harder.

The last two full-time printers retired earlier this year, and Rhoderick was the only one left to operate the linotype. "I'm gradually working less and less time," he said, "but I'll stick around and help some."

Also still on hand is longtime pressman Gene Keller, a third cousin of former New York Yankee Charley Keller.

Rhoderick sets the type and then composes the pages, placing the type into the metal frames, or chases, and deciding what goes where in the paper. It was his decision, for instance, to lead with the 4-H and downplay McDonald's, because "the McDonald's is not finalized yet."

He also does some reporting, namely about the meetings of the joint Town Council and Planning Board, which he also chairs. Because of his position with the paper, he said, he has never run for mayor, but he sees no conflict in sometimes reporting the news he has help make.

McCaffrey said that while the 1,300-circulation paper has gained in advertising, thanks in part to the new shopping center on the town's outskirts, and is making some inroads with the newcomers, most of the readers are still older people.

"You get a lot of the old news," observed Richard Routzhan, 73, a subscriber for upwards of 40 years. He said his wife liked the community items.

Older readers were the ones who complained when the longtime columns of George C. Rhoderick, Carlton's father, stopped appearing. The senior Rhoderick had written a weekly local history column and a sermon for years, but was incapacitated by a stroke last year at the age of 91. The newspaper didn't explain why his columns stopped appearing, and some readers blamed Saxon.

"You have the old school and the new school," the new owner said. "This paper had not that much advertising when I bought it. Now we have all these government legal notices.

"People get mad now and say, 'The paper's all ads.' But they don't realize the cost. The first four months, money was pouring out of my pocket like it was Niagara Falls. I have yet to take a paycheck."

The only high-tech machine at the paper is a photo-lathe machine that produces engravings of pictures, which are then pasted on wood blocks and positioned in the chase.

It's almost impossible to get linotype machine parts, so Carlton Rhoderick cannibalizes one that is half a century old. The old type is melted down and recast into bars that are fed into the linotype.

"This procedure is so slow, there's a limit to what you can set in a week," Saxon said. "There are not many places in this country where you can go and see this anymore. The equipment's either in a museum or broken up."

So, as soon as he can afford it, Saxon plans to bring the Register into the modern age of publishing, with computerized typesetting and a photo-offset press.

Given the age and condition of the current equipment, Rhoderick observes, that will be "just about the time he'll have to convert."