PARSONS, W.VA. -- This town of 1,900 is to barbecues what Detroit is to cars.

Parsons, amid the oaks and elms of the Allegheny Mountains, is home to the 40-acre Kingsford Charcoal plant, the largest producer of charcoal briquettes in the Northeast.

Every hour of every day -- except for the opening day of deer hunting season -- massive mounds of wood chips are sucked into a 1,900-degree furnace and burned to black ash. Pressured pipes speed the ash into a mixer, combining it with sawdust, nitrate, coal and lime. Then tiny pillow-shaped presses descend on the loose ash and shape it into briquettes that eventually are heaped on barbecue grills from Maine to North Carolina.

In Washington, where Parsons sends more charcoal per household than anywhere else, it makes for summer fun. Here, it is a year-round business.

Plant manager Harold McCloud said his 150 employes produce "tens of thousands of tons of charcoal a year." He cannot divulge specifics, he explained, because if the "competition knew how much we produced, they'd know how big our market is."

The Barbecue Industry Association in Naperville, Ill., also said that figures like that are secret. "But I can tell you," association President Arthur W. Seeds offered, "that Americans are expected to spend $434 million on charcoal briquettes this year."

Full of other facts, he volunteered the top five barbecue favorites, in order: hamburgers, steak, chicken, hot dogs and potatoes. Marshmallows come in 10th.

But before 10-pound bags of charcoal arrive in Washington area grocery stores for Labor Day -- one of the biggest barbecue days of the year, according to the industry association -- there is work to do in Parsons.

Richard Stokes, a crew leader in the plant's quality control division, spends his days setting charcoal fires and checking how long and well the briquettes glow.

James Poling works the assembly line that starts with scales weighing the charcoal and ends with automatic threaders sewing up red, white and blue bags. In between, the "tucker," who seems to have the riskiest job, tucks in the bags' sides seconds before each bag heads into the threader.

For 13 years, Poling has worked for Kingsford, a high-paying company in a high-unemployment area.

"Sure it gets boring," Poling shouted above the din of the assembly line, "but I don't think about bagging. I think about turkey hunting. I'd rather do that than eat or sleep."

Mariwyn Smith, chairwoman of the local Chamber of Commerce and editor of the Parsons Advocate, the self-styled "only newspaper in the whole world published by and for the people of Tucker County," said that people see Kingsford's success as their survival. "It's a very important part of the work force here . . . . God help us if they left."

Like in Detroit, where foreign cars are advised to stay outside the city limits, Parsons shops stock only Kingsford.

But whereas up in Michigan Henry Ford is associated with the Model T, down in this part of West Virginia Ford's claim to fame is the invention of the briquette.

Apparently despising waste and looking for a way to use the scraps from the wooden Model T frames, Ford built a charcoal plant in Iron Mountain, Mich. The plant, constructed about 1920, produced the now-familiar black pillow-shaped charcoal pieces. According to archivists at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., coal came in lumps until then.

"In the 1920s, {Ford's briquettes} were used for curing tobacco and in the kitchens on ocean liners and dining cars. They were more efficient and took up less space," said John W. Bennett, an 80-year-old volunteer at the Ford Museum who worked at the Iron Mountain plant from 1928 to 1951.

Ford named his brother-in-law, E.G. Kingsford, as the charcoal plant manager, and the Ford company sold bags of charcoal from its dealership.

In 1951, Ford sold the charcoal business, and later the Clorox Co. took over the firm that now bears Kingsford's name.

Barbecue association president Seeds, who can tell you that those people most likely to barbecue are aged 25 to 44 and are neither poor nor wealthy, says that despite competition from gas grills, he sees no sign of charcoal use slowing down.

"More people are barbecuing all the time," he said, "especially in suburban areas."