The cold, gray drizzle outside didn't darken the mood of the good Hillsboro citizens waiting expectantly yesterday inside the Hill Tom Market.

At 10 a.m. the truck came in from Purcellville, and a pall was lifted from the civic life of Virginia's second-smallest incorporated town.

The mail had arrived! Hillsboro's long municipal nightmare was over.

Well, not to overstate it, but many in the western Loudoun County settlement said they have been in something of a funk since last April, when postmaster Charlotte James died.

Her death left Hillsboro without a U.S. post office, and its 114 residents without their usual place to trade gossip, find out who is not feeling well and verse themselves on the latest issues.

So it was a joyous day that brought the dedication of the new Hillsboro Community Post Office at the Hill Tom general store. Nearly half the town and even Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) turned out to celebrate the return of life as usual.

The new postal clerk, Hill Tom owner Martha Torlone, pressed her lips in a tight smile and confessed she's not quite sure what she's getting into.

Until yesterday, people in Hillsboro had to drive six or more miles to Purcellville to pick up their mail, which by itself was nuisance enough.

More painful, said many residents, was losing an institution that over the decades had become part of the soul of their community.

"It's more than just a place to get mail," Ed Montgomery, a retired farmer, said of the post office. "It's the center of town."

On the far edge of metropolitan Washington, where longtime farmers mix with Tysons Corner commuters seeking the pastoral life, the daily run to the post office is a tradition valued by old and new alike.

Sixty miles from the Washington Monument, three miles from the West Virginia border, Hillsboro has yet to feel the growth and bustle rampant in most of Northern Virginia, though there are occasional reminders that these may be closer than meets the eye.

That is why Hillsboro was aghast when, after James' death, the U.S. Postal Service announced it was closing its local office in the name of "efficiency."

The bureaucrats simply would have to find some other way to save money, outraged residents declared.

Town leaders took their grievance to Wolf. Although he is a fiscal conservative who might ordinarily appreciate a chance to cut costs, Wolf said he would be delighted to enlist the authority of the Congress in the campaign to save Hillsboro's post office. Wolf said yesterday that his office's negotiations with the Postal Service were "complex."

Things were further complicated by the task of finding someone to operate the post office. Torlone said she agreed after it became apparent that there was nowhere else to put it but in her general store. There was also precedent: The store had housed the town's post office in the 1890s, she said.

Hillsboro residents have a keen sense of their history. A sign at the town's edge boasts that in 1831 it was the birthplace of Susan Koerner Wright, the mother of Orville and Wilbur and a "notable woman who largely guided and wisely inspired her sons to their immortal discovery."

In the 1800s, Hillsboro, which is tucked tightly in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, was home to two mills, residents say. Today the economy is mostly limited to a few stores, some specializing in antiques or rare books. Many of its 41 houses have porches out front where the elderly townsfolk, who make up a large percentage of the population, pass the time during pleasant weather.

"Hillsboro is a place where the streets have no names and the houses have no numbers," said writer Byron Farwell, who moved to the town 15 years ago and has served as mayor. "Our newest house was built in 1889, and we think that's quite recent enough."

Getting elected to the Hillsboro Town Council is not difficult. In fact, some residents said it can be hard not to be tapped, since most seats are filled by informal write-in campaigns.

Hillsboro is the kind of place that, when a resident is in the hospital, the council always passes a resolution ordering that flowers be sent.

This sense of community in Hillsboro and other small settlements that dot the western Loudoun countryside is attractive to rising numbers of recent arrivals who became refugees from the District or its immediate suburbs. The phenomenon has been dramatic enough that many county officials say that rapid growth may endanger the area's scenic beauty. Most new Hillsboro residents, however, said they have been welcomed with open arms.

Sue Ulland, who moved with her family from Poolesville in Montgomery County 12 years ago, said rural life has been a series of trade-offs, with the serene panoramas and small-town values balanced against a long commute to Fairfax County for her husband.

"You lead a different type of life out here," Ulland said.

It's the kind of life, said Farwell, where town residents would amuse themselves at the old post office with a "No Loitering" sign that was hung near a bench used for precisely that purpose.

Farwell said he hopes the sign will soon be moved to the new post office at the Hill Tom store, where residents will ignore it just as brazenly. That, after all, is the whole point.