When they were finishing school and starting to think about jobs, neither Ed Martin nor Ben Rodriguez wasted any time looking for one here.

Martin, Class of 55, grew up in the days when for excitement some kids used to hang out at Tinsley's fried chicken stand watching the big semis hit the devastating bump in Highway 6. After the Army, he took a job in Houston, knowing that, despite the family and friends he left behind, there was no opportunity for him in Navasota.

Today, however, Martin is back and working with Rodriguez, Class of '75, at the new forging plant just outside of town. Rodriguez, beneficiary of an industrial spurt that has reversed this area's long decline, says he "never even had to go around looking for a job" - it was lined up weeks before finished Navasota High.

In thousands of rural communities, former residents are returning and young people are staying on as new job opportunities and newly enhanced social values spawn a countryside population growth never before seen in this century.

"We were supposed to be gone by 1990," insurance agent Bill Miller, a returnee from Philadelphia, says of the decline that dragged the population of surrounding Grimes County to 11,855 in 1970 - less than half of what it was in 1900.

But in the past seven years, the number of jobs in this area has increased 60 per cent, to 1,637, and the population of Navasota alone is now estimated at 6,000 - up from 5,111 in 1970. "The only reason I'm back here," says Miller, "is we're growing."

So bustling are this little town and its immediately surrounding area that many people cannot find housing, and live 20 miles away in the city of College Station, home of Texas A&M University. Traffic can get so bad that two years ago a would-be bank robber was arrested because he couldn't get out of the bank parking lot in time.

The shift to the countryside has been widespread enough that non-metropolitan areas in the United States are now growing almost twice as fast as metropolitan areas - 1.3 per cent compared to 0.7 per cent. In 1976, according to the Census Bureau. 67.8 million people lived in non-metropolitan areas, up from 63.8 million in 1970.

"When I came back I couldn't believe all the people I didn't know," said Tommy Dedmon, 21, of his return to Navasota last year after working a year and a half in Houston, 70 miles to the southeast.

For Dedmon, Rodriguez and martin, all employees of Interstate Southwest Forge Co., the slower, surer pace of small town life held a particular personal appeal that coincided with broader forces at work in the nation. Firms seeking new markets in growing areas, lower land and labor costs and what they considered a more favorable attitude toward business were willing to locate plants in rural towns having good access to rails or roads.

According to rural sociologists and others, one crucial element in community growth is its leadership's desire for change and ability to bring at about.

"The thing that holds back most rural communities is the existing power structure," says Curtis Toews of the National Rural Center in Austin. "They see no reason for community development."

In many cases, the local leadership "is used to a lot of power and does not want to be challenged," adds Myrna Hoskins, a rural sociology graduate student at Texas A&M who is studying development, or lack of it, in four rural Texas towns, including Navasota.

Grimes County and Navasota - apparently lacking an entrenched power structure - moved into the rush for industry in the 1950s with the formation of an industrial foundation by a group of businessmen and community leaders. But almost two more decades of decline would pass before the foundation's 281-acre industrial park north of town would seriously attract businesses and thus change the life of this area.

One of those who played a key role in wooing industry to Navasota was Bill Miller's father. Albert, who runs the insurance agency where the younger Miller now works. Al Miller is a former president of the industrial foundation and he and his son are on its board of directors.

Al Miller has done such things as persuading a high school class to type 2,000 letters to various industries extolling the virtues of Navasota. But he says he has slowed down some since the morning he raced to a furniture factory fire in Houston and, with his foot on a smoldering timber, told the manager he ought to rebuild in Navasota.

"Where the hell is Navasota?" was the initiol response. But today the plant here employs 65 people.

It is one of 18 industries now here. They produce such things as cheese, mobile homes, steel tubing, corrugated steel culverts, and machinery for the oil industry. A trucking company opened a freight department here to tap the shipping generated by all of this.

"This is what we've been working for," says Al Miller, "to provide jobs so our children won't have to leave. That's the nome of the game."

But the candidly states that there are other benefits. "As industry moves in, their employees are buying insurance. When I sell the community to an industry, I sell a policy to somebody in the community."

Al Miller says he'd like to see Navasota grow to about 10,000 people so it could attract the goods and services that would make life more convenient. For, while the stores and offices along Washington Street are full and busy, the town lacks a selection of restaurants, motel accommodations and specialty shops. Miller's theater is Navasota's only picture show.

"There has not been a dramatic increase in the quality of life," notes Chester Ballard, a doctoral candidate in rural sociology who is working with Hoskins in the study of Texas towns.

Yet Tommy Dedmon, who earns $800 a month figuring rates of bonus pay for Internstate Forging although he knows he could probably make more in Houston says "it would't be worth it." He and Martin both savor the friendliness, slower pace and safety a small town surrounded by country.

The County Historic Commission is restoring the 100-year-old P.A. Smith Hotel facing the railroad tracks, where in Navasota's better days 17 passenger trains stopped daily. The hotel restoration seems to say that Navasota, more secure in its future, can now preserve a piece of its past.

About the only dark clouds some people see here except perhaps for the veil of dust drawn by traffic over a setting sun at the end of Washington Street, is whether the new industries will be able to attract sufficient labor.

Interstate Forging, for example, has 117 employees and expects to have 225 in a year - but "we won't know where in the hell we're going to get them." said John C. Lofgren, Interstate's comptroller. He said the company is trying to recruit skilled and unskilled labor from such depressed northern area as Youngstown Ohio, and has spent $3,000 on job advertising in the last two months in four northern cities.

Whatever this community has lost in the long decline of its agriculture, whatever it has gained and whatever it still lacks, the constant virtues of a small town have apparently endured.

So now people like Ed Martin evaluate the growth of their hometowns as an opportunity to live out those virtues as well as to pursue the opportunity for personal success that for so many decades lay for away in the concrete and crowds of the American city.

With close friendships peace of mind for his two children and the easier pace of Navasota. Martin can say, "I'm back home fulfilling my drive in life, and at the same time, I'm giving my family the opportunity to grow up in a solid growing community."

"Hell," adds Al Miller, "We've got everything. Why would you want to live anywhere but Grimes County?"