For Swananoa Hill, 84, Howard County meant freedom.

The first five decades of her life were spent in cramped city houses. In an unhappy marriage. In unfulfilling jobs.

Then one day she drove down a narrow dirt road to a new job as a secretary at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel.

As her car puttered down the road, the wide-open spaces of the largely undeveloped--pre-Columbia--county rolled by. It set her mind racing: Some day, I'll buy land and build my dream home.

It got better. At work, a devilishly handsome physicist made a pass at her. She declined. He asked again the next day. She said no. But there was something charming about the guy, wasn't there, she remembers.

It was 1965, and things were looking up for Swanie Hill.

"Howard was all farmland. I couldn't believe it. Remember, I lived in the city all my life," she said. "That job changed my life--for the better."

The years rolled by. Hill divorced her first husband and married that flirtatious physicist, Freeman Hill. They built a California-style rambler on five acres in Fulton. They grew old and happy.

Now, Columbia sprawls across the eastern part of the county. Every day, it seems, more and more people come to Howard from the inner suburbs of the District and Baltimore, Hill said.

"We're going to lose all the farmland--what made me fall in love with this county in the first place!" she said.

Hill has lived through most of the 20th century. She can tick off the epochal events of her lifetime: the Depression, World War II and the Kennedy assassination (it still brings tears to her eyes). She can tell you how Howard County has changed ("Crime's gotten out of hand"). But as the century draws to a close, it's the personal ties--the husbands, the siblings, the children, the parents--that Hill remembers most.

"I loved my second husband so. He was just the most delightful man," she said.

And it's the personal defeats--divorce, a custody battle, illnesses and deaths--that still, after all these years, give her pause.

"My divorce was the hardest thing I had to go through. You didn't divorce in those days like you do now. I was on my own," she said.

On a recent day, Hill sat in the sun-drenched family room of the house she built, with its colorful knit rugs and antique lamps, to reflect on the passing of the century.

Her hair is silver-white and tied back. Her eyes rarely open more than a squint, save for when she is making a point.

It's with particular relish that she recalls her move to Fulton.

The newly married couple heard about cheap land there: $5,000 for a five-acre plot. They walked and walked until they reached a spot with a view at the top of a small hill. That hill became their front yard.

"You can go out here," she said, gesturing out the window, "and on even the hottest day the breeze will be blowing."

Fulton remains relatively pastoral. From Hill's front yard, one can see a farm silo and the houses of a few neighbors in the distance.

But mostly it's just rolling green fields in every direction. Hill, though, is acutely aware of Howard's Big Kid on the Block, Columbia, located three miles north of Fulton.

"Columbia is the big deal here now, I guess. I think it's deteriorating in parts. Crime is going up there, and it's spilling to other communities," she said.

In early December, the Mount Zion Cemetery near her house was vandalized. Gravestones were tipped--including her husband's.

"Can you imagine? It was very distressing," she said.

Hill's resume has grown thick with Howard County civic activities over the years: president of the Homemakers of Howard County, president of the United Methodist Women in Howard County, treasurer of the Bent Twig Garden Club in Fulton and, most recently, a stakeholder in the high-profile "Howard County: A United Vision" task force that's searching for ways to improve the quality of life in the county.

Since her second husband died of prostate cancer in 1985, she has devoted herself to these service projects. And though she sees cause for concern across the county, she also sees hope.

She is comfortable with the governance of the county and gives County Executive James N. Robey (D) high marks.

She pores through newspapers to keep up with the latest county developments.

Hill had a stroke in March, and the left side of her body hasn't quite recovered. Walking isn't so easy anymore. She also has taken several spills, breaking all her ribs on one occasion.

But she refuses a cane or special assistance.

"As long as I've got my mind," she said, "I'll be fine."

She still recalls the details of the 1930 funeral procession of the 27th U.S. president, William Howard Taft, down Pennsylvania Avenue in the then-bucolic District of her childhood: the casket in the Capitol Rotunda, the solemn gazes of the thousands that lined the funeral route.

But at century's end, it's people she remembers most vividly.

"One thing I'm grateful for is that people have been good to me," she said. "Wherever I turn, they're just good to me."