Theresa Wilt's daddy, who was a dynamite shooter in the limestone quarry here, brought her to live in this bucolic village seven decades ago.

Back then, "company town" was no cause for anger.

Wilt's family lived in a company house. They had free coal, electricity and water. There was a children's maypole and a company doctor who made house calls. Wilt married a quarrier and sent her two boys to Sunday school at the square-steepled Blairton United Methodist Church, whose cornerstone says 1915.

These fond memories and her 72 years make Wilt loath to move. But she and about 100 other residents of Blairton, three miles outside Martinsburg, may have no other choice because the Virginia firm now running the limestone operation intends to cut off their water from the quarry's well.

"Honey, I cry many a night," Wilt said. "I just couldn't take it if I had to live in an apartment. Here, I can sit outside. This has been home to me."

The Riverton Corp., of Front Royal, Va., which acquired the quarry in 1976, also told the hamlet of 40-odd homes that it couldn't grant a long-term easement for connecting pipes to the public water system, just 1,000 feet away, because it doesn't own the land under Blairton but merely leases it.

"You cannot give a permanent right-of-way on land you don't own," said Riverton Vice President Bruce Jolly.

With the prospect of no water--and suspecting that Riverton aims to force them out--30 Blairton residents and the village church filed suit against the company in 1997.

The case, now in pretrial mediation, underscores "the core issue of the state's economic problems," said West Virginia historian Barbara Rasmussen, "which is that most land here is owned by powerful corporations not resident in the state or by the federal government, and they don't care if there is an infrastructure to support small communities like Blairton."

Rasmussen, author of "Absentee Landowning and Exploitation in West Virginia 1760-1920" and an instructor at Fairmont State College near Morgantown, said the large out-of-state presence--owning more than 70 percent of the land in some counties--hinders creation of a more diversified local economy. With more local ownership, she said, this little slice of Appalachia just two hours from downtown Washington might be able to create the tax base needed to improve roads, schools and water systems.

"I have heard this [story] a hundred thousand times," Rasmussen said of Blairton. "Every time a resident of West Virginia or the descendants of original property owners try to sort something like this through, they run into a morass of absentee interests. And usually these people are outpriced in court by high-priced lawyers."

Roots of Conflict

Blairton's predicament dates to 1909, when Blair Limestone Co. President T. King McClanahan, of Pennsylvania, persuaded three West Virginia farming families to lease him 510 acres in return for an annual royalty of 2 cents per ton of mined limestone, with a guaranteed minimum of $5,000.

One of the families was headed by E.W. Van Metre, whose grandson is Albert G. Van Metre Sr., chairman and CEO of the Van Metre Cos. in Burke. Albert Van Metre and his sister, Evalina Thompson, of Alexandria, are among the farmers' descendants named as defendants in the lawsuit.

The 1909 lease also allowed Blair to renew it every 20 years at the same $5,000 minimum, but it had no escape clause for the farmers. They could not refuse to renew. The arrangement was not unusual in its day: In return for a safety net against bad harvests, farmers gave mining companies long-term security to develop their businesses.

Blair later assigned the lease to Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., which held it for decades. In 1952, that firm sold the houses in Blairton for an average of $300 each to employees living in them.

In return, the new homeowners accepted unusual terms: Unable to buy the plots on which their homes stood, they subleased them from Jones & Laughlin. Those subleases could be terminated on 30 days' notice. And though Jones & Laughlin continued to supply water, the sub-leases stated it was not obliged to do so.

Blairton's mostly blue-collar residents, whose homes today are valued from $5,000 to $35,000, were not unduly worried by the terms.

"These homes were here since 1920, and nobody had been evicted or threatened to be evicted," said Harlan Greenfield, 37, a printer's apprentice whose wife grew up in Blairton. "The company had never shown any reason for the families to think, 'I might lose my home.' "

Residents also got connected to telephone, gas and electrical lines as they became available, paying their own bills. Jones & Laughlin gave easements for these services because they were needed for its business.

Changing Times

In 1976, Jones & Laughlin assigned the 1909 lease to Riverton, whose president, Tobia G. Mercuro, recently purchased a $735,000 house in Rosslyn with a loan from his company.

Riverton will not say how much it paid for the Blairton lease, but soon after, it began charging residents monthly rents, ranging from $19 to $43, for their lots. In 1985, it stopped quarrying operations.

Then in 1995, Riverton wrote the residents that it was "no longer willing to assume the risk" of supplying water "after consideration of the potential liability exposure and operating expenses." After "a reasonable transition period," it intended to discontinue "this courtesy water supply."

Barred from drilling their own wells by local health authorities and feeling stonewalled by Riverton, the residents filed their lawsuit. It argues that the subleases Riverton took over from Jones & Laughlin implicitly give the homeowners a legal right to permanent easements for all essential services, including water.

As local resentment grew, Riverton issued a statement in April saying it had spent more than $380,000 since 1976 to run the water system "from which it derives no benefit whatever." The company has "no hidden agenda," it said, and "the fear of imminent loss of their homes, expressed by some of the residents, simply has no factual basis."

Riverton also noted that the residents, who knew when they bought their homes that their subleases could be terminated with 30 days' notice, had "not paid real estate taxes for 44 years."

"We don't want to be in the water business," Riverton's Jolly said. "And it's not something we feel we should continue to do."

Reminded that Jones & Laughlin had given long-term easements for utilities like electricity, Jolly replied: "I don't know what other companies have done. I only know what we have done. . . . I have not said we cannot give a short-term easement. . . . That's a matter for the attorneys."

Asked if there is limestone under the village that the company wants to mine, Jolly replied, "We have stated that we have no plans to do that. Nothing in the foreseeble future." But, he added, "We have paid for that right. We're not ruling it out."

West Virginia state Del. Larry V. Faircloth (R-Berkeley), who has rallied to Blairton's cause, said he has found government funds to hook Blairton to the public water system, but the project needs an easement of "at least 15 to 20 years" to make it financially worthwhile.

"The question in the back of my mind is, 'Is Riverton dealing with us in good faith? Or do they have some other plan?' " Faircloth asked. "They just need to come to the table and deal with these people as it relates to their drinking water, unless it's their interest to force them off the land."

Suspicions that Riverton wants Blairton evacuated increased in February when the company, after a 14-year hiatus, restarted operations at the quarry, using portable crushers on piles of limestone mined years ago. Crushed limestone is used in asphalt and sewage pipe tunnels, both in demand in today's booming economy.

"When it's all said and done, there won't be a home in this village," said John F. Hoover, 61, who grew up in his Blairton home. "You're going to have a quarry hole. That's it."

All the parties' lawyers will meet tomorrow at Berkeley County Circuit Court for their next mediation session.

Among those present will be Albert G. Van Metre. "Our interest as landlord is only with the Riverton Corporation," and the dispute is "not an issue that we are responsible for," said his spokesman, Laurence E. Bensignor. "We hope Riverton Corporation and the Blairton residents work out an amicable agreement."

Officials of the United Methodist Church also will be watching the mediation. Church spokesman Dean Snyder said Washington-based Bishop Felton Edwin May regards Blairton "as a justice issue" and had asked church lawyers to assist its residents.

Now a Suburb

Today, Blairton is more a suburb of Martinsburg than a company town. And it presents a mixed picture. Some homes are attractive, with well-kept lawns and petunia-festooned porches. Others are badly in need of repair. The onetime community hall is blackened with smoke from a fire; the company store is long-shuttered and the roads are somewhat run down.

About 60 percent of Blairton residents are descendents of onetime company employees, or related to them. Several are senior citizens--the oldest is 92. Three mentally disabled adults live in a group home.

All day long, trains rumble past, blasting their whistles. But in quieter moments, the leafy community hears honking geese, hooting owls and the song of whippoorwills.

The women of Blairton have stitched two quilts for a raffle to help defray their legal costs--now $15,000 and escalating.

"We feel the water was a threat" designed to get people to move, Greenfield said. "That didn't happen. The Blairton community rallied. Hell or high water, we're not leaving."

In the village's church sanctuary, a small indicator of Blairton's stability hangs on the front wall. A wooden board announces that 85 people attended Sunday services on June 20, 1999, and gave a total offering of $1,512.

Exactly a year earlier, 81 people had attended services.

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.