As a child, Betty Jean Wheeler would lie quietly on a bench, twirling her mother's ring during Sunday services at the Third Haven Society of Friends meetinghouse. Like many children, she didn't completely understand the long, quiet hours of worship, but knew they were special and central to her family's life.

Today at age 72, Wheeler, a lifelong, third-generation member of the Quaker meeting in Easton, Md., is much more appreciative of the contemplative, serene setting of the historic meetinghouse. She is now helping to lead the effort to restore the post-and-beam structure that has stood for more than 300 years on the edge of the Tred Avon River, about 65 miles east of Washington in Talbot County.

Out of use only since 1989, the original Third Haven meetinghouse is Maryland's oldest known standing building and one of the nation's oldest houses of worship, a place where Quaker leader William Penn contemplated. As such, it is considered "one of the most important historic landmarks in the Eastern United States," according to Orlando Ridout, archeological historian with the Maryland Historical Trust.

"It's significant not only for its age and for the role in development of Quakerism, it is a benchmark for our understanding of early Colonial architecture in the South," he said.

The only other known surviving 17th century structure in Maryland is Holly Hill, a private residence dating to 1698.

For Wheeler and others who can trace family histories through the Third Haven church -- one member has found the name of an ancestor carved on a beam -- the significance is in the spiritual relief the building and its history inspire.

"That place always offers a total sort of sanctity. It gives a feeling of peace," said Wheeler, who still twirls her mother's ring.

Financed by an $85,000 grant from the Maryland Historical Trust and private donations, a full-scale restoration of the meetinghouse began about 18 months ago, the first major work on the building since it was enlarged in 1797. It has no running water or electricity.

But unforeseen damage has boosted the cost of restoring the building to $400,000.

Workers found that a virtual highway of termite activity has weaved in and out of the aged Colonial timbers, including the main support beam, drastically weakening the structure. Some timbers looked perfectly healthy, but were completely hollowed out by the termites. Other problems: The building was too close to the ground, causing partial deterioration of the foundation. The roof was bowed from poor construction of the "new wing" in 1797.

The 100 members of Third Haven are trying to raise the money to reduce an estimated $150,000 debt for the restoration, according to Kenneth Carroll, a member and Quaker historian.

In the meantime, the historical trust, a state agency, is closely monitoring the work, requiring the preservation of all potential historic materials. That mandate has resulted in segments of damaged older beams being preserved and splintered with strong new ones. New beams have been dated to simplify future research on the building. Each crumbled piece of plaster removed from the eaves is being saved for study as well.

"Spending $400,000 to preserve one of the most important historic landmarks in the eastern United States seems more than reasonable, particularly when you consider what people spend on modern houses that have little significance," Ridout said.

The project is expected to be completed this spring when the building will be used occasionally as a meetinghouse by its Quaker congregation and as a training site for the historical trust.

Quakers arrived on the Eastern Shore in the 1660s, and met mostly in private homes. When the group grew too large for a smaller meetinghouse, Third Haven was built.

Today, the meetinghouse sits on a seven-acre tract surrounded by other centuries-old buildings, including a caretaker's house and equipment sheds. Nearby is the "new" meetinghouse -- 100 years old.

Inside the white-walled, two-story original meetinghouse, the dark wood walls, floors and benches that were installed centuries ago have been preserved, with few modern enhancements.

"One of the most important aspects of the building is the lack of change over time," said Ridout, who is overseeing the work. "It is especially rare to find a Colonial building that has never been painted on the interior."

Wooden "windows" divide the room in half for privacy. Until this century, one side was used for women's meetings and the other for men's meetings. The windows were opened when common business was discussed.

Upstairs, the wall of plaster next to the stairs bears the scribbles of children and others: Bessie Dicks, of Richmond, was there in September 1917, according to one scrawled message.

Robert Reushat apparently signed his name in 1782, leaving the thought, "Gone but not forgotten."

Esther Cooperman, who moved to Easton 12 years ago from Philadelphia, knew that one of her relatives belonged to the meeting in the 1880s. At a service one day soon after she joined the Easton congregation, she discovered his name, William Moore, carved into one of the timbers.

"When you are there it makes you think about {the} people, about the anti-slavery movement and other social questions," Cooperman said recently. "How did they handle the problems of the day?"

Ridout said, "{In it} you can really connect with the past . . . it's a really powerful place."