There wasn't much here, let alone a town, when Elbert Stoner arrived in 1895. In fact, the Oklahoma Territory had not yet been admitted to the union.

But soon a community did come together, calling itself Cashion and thriving on a new rail link. Over time, it grew to a perhaps 1,000 people, but then came the Depression and the loss of the rail line. Somehow, however, the town hung on, and when Bert Stoner joined the town Board of Trustees in 1937 he set a course for growth and modernization.

He made deals here and there. He brought a water system, a sewer system electricity and natural gas - even read the electric meters for the eight years to keep costs down. Tight spending. No debts, No frills.

Today Cashion is in bankruptcy court. It arrived there even before the big spenders in New York because, for all of its effort, Cashion now owes more than $135,000 - about one-third of its entire assessed evaluation - the result of a county court jury finding that an explosion in a resident's food cellar that badly burned four people was caused by leaking sewer gas, and that the town's faulty maintenance was to blame.

The judgment, long ago upheld on appeal, has thrown this community of perhaps 350 into a life of uncertainly.

Part of that uncertainty is over whether Cashion will even survive as a town or whether, like the railroads did in 1937, it will just stop, leaving its residents isolated among the surrounding Oklahoma wheat fields and cattle ranges.

Last fall, when tax bills were tripled to reflect the court judgment, some residents immediately put their homes on the market only to find that there were no buyers. Some businesses, already barely turning a profit, fear being forced being out.

Cashion could just sell out - selling the courthouse on the courthouse steps. Sell the fire trucks, the ambulance, the water system, the police cars - whatever would fetch a dollar, and just stop trying to provide for the community.

But that is a harsh possibility in the eyes of Bert Stoner, who has worked for so long to bring those services to Cashion. "You don't sell out a town," says Stoner, amid the clutter of his insurance office.

"Cashion's got the best eight-man football team in the state," said D. Kent Meyers, the town's bankruptcy lawyer from Oklahoma City. And so the spirit now is to see it through, to find a way to pay the debt.

For whatever Cashion isn't, it is a community center for the surrounding farms, and the Farmer's Co-op at the edge of town is the town's largest industry as it serves those growing wheat, corn and milo and raising cattle in the surrounding countryside.

"Hell, can't we get ours like New York did" says an angry Dale Leif, 72, one taxpayer who is faced with helping to pay off the debt.

Last Fall Leif's tax bill went from $112 to $403 as county tax collectors sought to begin gathering money to pay off Cashion's debt. The mayor, Stoner, could see the voters' faces at the post office across the street from his insurance office as they opened their tax bills. "They were chewing on their tongues," he recalls. "They would have taken on anyone - taken on a buzz saw."

The Farmer's Co-op tax bill was up from $3,400 to $13,900. The Cashion Community Bank was up from $700 to $2,700. Inez Mason's bill on her three-bedroom brick home was up from $176 to $633. In fact, all the tax bills in town were up well over 300 percent.

And only a bankruptcy petition saved them from having to pay.

Oklahoma law requires localities to pay damage judgments one-third each year for three consecutive years. It was that breakdown that would have required tax bills of the size received by residents last fall.

By going to bankruptcy court, however, the town hopes to persuade a federal judge to grant a longer time - say 15 years or so - to pay off the debt. Other payback arrangements or settlement could be reached, but town residents have abandoned any notion that the judgment against them will be reduced.

While resigned to it, many residents still resent having to pay, expressing the belief that their longtime rivals in Kingfisher, the county seat just up the road, where the trial was held, wronged Cashion with their jury's decision.

At trial, Cashion maintained that the explosion in Glenn Smith's cellar was caused by gasoline fumes. But Smith, who still lives in Cashion and whose wife, son-in-law and granddaughter were burned in the explosion, says there has been no ill will toward his family.

What division has occurred in the community may be more the stuff of small-town politics. Newer residents, who tend to live in brick houses, which are valued higher than the frame houses of older residents, expressed concern over proposals to pay off the $135,000 solely by increasing property tax rates.

Also, according to some, there is a nagging and growing belief that perhaps it is time for Mayor Stoner to step down. "Gossipwise," says Inez Mason, "there's a rumor that someones' going to run against Stoner" this year.

But Calvin Reasoner, a pressure station operator with Oklahoma Natural Gas, for one, has resigned himself to living in Cashion and working out the repayment.

As he talked with a visitor after Tuesday night's meeting, Dale Leif interjected that he was born in Oklahoma in 1906 in an area that was still Indian territory. Replied Reasoner: "We may end up giving it back to the Indians after all."

That would put things just about where they were when Bert Stoner arrived in 1895.