For the helmeted men in dirt and sweat-covered work-clothes who toiled for subsistence wages in the massive asbestos mine here, the decision three years ago to buy the company and run it themselves was a gamble that left them playing for higher stakes than most had ever dreamed of before.

The experiment in worker ownership succeeded in keeping the 200 workers in this town of 550 out of unemployment. It also plopped them into an alien world of stock options and high finances.

The spirit of camaraderie between the workers and managers who had banded together to buy the mine, now called the Vermont Asbestos Group 5, led one worker to comment at the time, "I don't know if it will work, but I'll take a cut in pay if it'll do any good."

The experiment in workers controlling the means of production here in the northeast kingdom of the Green Mountain State turned out so well that the miners became successful capitalists - a transition that turned harmony into discord.

And, although the workers still technically own the mine - making it the largest operation of its kind in America - all signs now point to the demise of worker ownership and many of them have written its obituary.

"Maybe we've been too successful," said David Winer, former president of the company. "Maybe it was just too easy."

Since buying the company in 1975 from the GAF Corp., which pulled out rather than install $1 million of federally mandated pollution control equipment a worker's initial investment at $50 a share has skyrocketed to a book value of $2,185 a share. And the dividend is now $144 a share.

But the headiness of financial success was apparently harder to wield than a 15-pound miners' pick, and many of the men ended up talking more like Wall Street moguls than Belvedere Mountain miners. Dissatisfied with their board of directors' plans for the company's future, the workers began grumbling that the experiment had turned into a sort of Frankenstein's monster - that the wrong brains had been placed in the corporate head.

After months of acrimonious in-fighting, the workers last Saturday rejected the old board of directors - the men who led the fight for worker ownership - and elected a new management slate, including outside business interests, led by a local construction company owner who has tried to buy the mine from the workers.

The new company president and chairman of the board, Howard Manosh, who has been able to buy 13 percent of the company's stock (making him the major shareholder), acknowledged that management of the company had fallen to the point where "everybody felt they should have been running the company, but it was like trying to run a classroom where students have as much say as the teacher."

At the core of the company's problems were the human failings of greed and jealously, according to many workers. Managers become more managerial, workers became suspicious that the blue collars of their miner/directors were becoming a bit too starched and talk of investing profits instead of putting them into the workers' pocket was blasphemy to men trying to support their families on less than $8,000 a year in wages.

Duane Brown, a warehouse shift boss who lost his seat on the board in the management shuffle, blamed the company's troubles on miners who "act as carefare as a hog on ice; they can't accept responsibility. They're always bitchin' and holerin' and bellyacchin' and all they really want is to put that money in their pockets. Well, we're gonna lose a good thing."

Petty bickering began to undermine the company's high morale, and hostility over the worker board members' new role began to spread through the open pits where the men mine the white-grey asbestos ore.

One worker compented, "Hell, I could have done the president's job better in half the time and still run my conveyor."

"People didn't know who was getting how much money, and there was a lot of talk," said Stanley Parsons, a machine operator who was the company's largest stockholder until Manosh took control. "And then there were the managers who gave very little credit to anyone else like it was a one man show - and it wasn't.

Even while the company's stock value continued to rise, dissension grew and a mutiny nearly broke out over the board's decision to diversify by building a wallboard plant using waste materials from the asbestos processing plant. The decision was made over the objections of many workers who wanted profits poured into higher wages.

The miners, apparently unable to shake the workers' old mistrust of management, had maintained membership in the Cement, Lime and Gypsum Workers Union. They almost struck for more pay two years ago.

Today, average salaries are up from $3.26 an hour when GAF owned the mine to $4.96 an hour, with the company paying for a benefits package that includes dental, medical and pension plans equal to those of IBM or New England Telephone.

Union president Bruton Baraw said, "We would have been in real trouble come negotiating time if we didn't have the union." But like any good corporate officers who had the company books to contend with, the old board noted that higher wages meant lower profits and dividends for the shareholders - who in this case happened to be the company's employes.

"We just couldn't get through to them that you have to invest to make money," said Peter Luplen, a former chairman of the board. "We were dealing with men who never had to worry about anything but their takehome pay."

"We're talking about unsophisticated people who do not understand what being a stockholder means," said Parsons of his fellow miners. "Not more than a dozen of them ever owned stock in their lives."

With the polarization of the worker board and the miners nearly complete, Manosh entered the picture, offering a "firm and guiding hand" to the apparent relief of many workers, who by now just wanted to cash in their chips and leave corporate management to a corporate manager.

Manosh had nearly walked away with 60 percent of the company in tendered offers when the old board took a desperation stand in federal court to maintain worker ownership, charging the offers were below book value and fraudulent.

A temporary injunction was issued against the sale, and rather than face continued court battles, Manosh withdrew the offers and mounted a lobbying campaign to gain control of the corporate offices.

"I'll just sit back now and if people want to sell me their stock, well, I'll buy it," he said, bolstering the predictions of many workers that Manosh will own the Vermont Asbestos Group within the next few months.