Inside, a throng of employees cheered while local philanthropic and political leaders threw bouquets of praise at Wal-Mart, Fauquier County's newest corporate citizen.

"It's raining now, but we can feel that sun of Mr. Sam shining down on us," said Del. Jay Katzen (R-Fauquier), referring to Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton.

Outside, a small band of protesters, some holding a banner that said "Another American Town Against Wal-Mart," was a reminder of the clamorous political debate that preceded construction of the 127,185-square-foot store on land straddling the Warrenton town limits and an unincorporated portion of Fauquier.

It opened Wednesday, to the delight of shoppers awed by the rows and rows of products--and the dismay of some Fauquier residents and shopkeepers worried that it will distort the character of traditional commercial districts such as Old Town Warrenton.

"Now that they're here, we hope that not just for the opening, but for the duration of their presence, they will be good neighbors," said Mara Seaforest, one of the protesters. "And one thing good neighbors don't do is kill each other."

Using the hot rhetoric that characterized the years-long debate before Wal-Mart gained final approval, Seaforest was referring to the charges of predatory pricing that have dogged Wal-Mart in its excursions into small-town America.

Wal-Mart spokesmen were on hand Wednesday with press packets that contained testimonials from officials in other towns, describing how the chain helped boost sales for local merchants. Several customers who roamed the aisles of the newest store were skeptical, though fatalistic.

"It does hurt the little guy," said Charles Olinger, 70, a retired federal worker from Bealeton. "But that's the way of life."

Tagging behind his wife, Marge, and perusing the store's shoe selection, Olinger said he was disgusted at the way the protesters insinuated themselves into Wednesday's ceremony. "You know who does that stuff? All these people in town who have their own business," he said.

At the ceremony were some politicians, such as Fauquier County Board of Supervisors Chairman Larry L. Weeks (R-Scott), who was ambivalent about the store as it worked its way through the planning process. Weeks used the ceremony to congratulate Wal-Mart's charitable deeds.

Arabelle Arrington, who sold the land to Wal-Mart and was vilified by preservationist groups, was ebullient as she presided over the ribbon-cutting.

"Many people said that Wal-Mart would take out, take out, take out," she said. "Well, it looks to me like they are going to put a lot back in."

She was referring to the long list of gifts to national and local groups that the image-conscious retail chain, with more than 2,300 outlets nationally, announced before the opening. Locally, the beneficiaries included Central Elementary School, some churches, a shelter for the homeless and the Sheriff's Department.

The largest gift of all--$6,500--went to the John Singleton Mosby Foundation, a favorite of Warrenton Mayor George B. Fitch and some Main Street boosters who want to turn a publicly owned building that once was home to the Confederate colonel into a tourist center and museum.

D. Duane Thompson is owner of Rhodes Drug Store on Main Street in Warrenton and was a vocal opponent of the zoning allowances made for Wal-Mart by the Warrenton Town Council and the Fauquier Board of Supervisors.

"When the powers that be out there want it, the people out there that don't want it are helpless," Thompson said.

An hour after the Wal-Mart opened Wednesday, he explained how he had spent the last year preparing for the event by expanding his shop to include services and items--fly-fishing equipment, for instance--not offered by the retail giant. He said he attended a seminar last year offered by Wal-Mart for small-business owners.

"They said, basically, 'The way to compete with us is: Don't compete with us,' " he said.

Keith Morris, a spokesman for the Wal-Mart chain, said there was no truth to rumors that the store would expand soon to include a grocery store.

"Lord knows they have enough land to do that if they wanted to," said Arrington, referring to the 24 acres she sold to Wal-Mart.