There are few places in America where Walter Cronkite and Johnny Carson could go unrecognized.

Oldtown is one of them.

"The picture was so good last night, you could almost see the faces," said Evelyn Twigg, a life-long resident of this sparsely settled region in western Maryland 135 miles up the Potomac River from Washington.

Television reception here hinges on whimsical weather patterns that occasionally combine a Washington picture with Pittsburgh sound. Towering antennas placed on mountaintops at considerable expense are virtually useless. No commercial cable television company, looking for profit, will venture here.

When Oldtowners talk of snow, they usually are describing their television screens.

Medialand this is not.

The residents here subscribe to "TV Guide" as an act of faith. They more often listen to, rather than watch, their sets. The local 12-grade school has eight color TVs bought by state funds but most often unused. In the homes, the children's view of the outside world is shaped largely by old reruns -- such as "The Brady Bunch" and "Father Knows Best" -- from the single non-network station that comes in most clearly and consistently.

But here, where older residents can still recall barges along the C&O Canal and where electricity arrived in the 1930s, "Sesame Street" and other video vistas of the modern world are finally close at hand. With government loans and grants and intense local support, satellite television far more sophisticated than most Americans enjoy is coming to Oldtown.

"People think Oldtown is just a

"What TV means to me is that Oldtown is changing, growing, finally," she said. "I like the down-home, good Christian people -- I hope that never changes -- and caring about your neighbor. But there's nothing for the young people to do. They need something and cable TV is a start."

The cable system to which 410 families have subscribed so far will reflect the viewers' choice, as determined by biannual balloting, and the community corporation running it will be nonprofit. Already, the subscribers have selected an initial 12 stations and eliminated, by a lopsided vote, the only cable company offering R-rated movies. What channels may be watched also may be controlled in the home by a "parent lock."

The Oldtown system will include network stations from Washington plus Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York channels, educational television and an open channel for programs originating locally. One station will televise the entire Allegany County library card catalogue, enabling residents to order books by phone to be delivered by the biweekly bookmobile.

"People banding together for cable TV is not new, but there has been nothing quite as sophisticated or advanced as this," said George J. Schweighofer, the U.S. Rural Electrification Administration official processing Oldtown's $750,000 low-interest loan.

"There are an awful lot of greedy people in cable, providing the minimum to make a buck," he said. "The object of the Oldtown system is just the opposite. They deserve an awful lot of credit."

It all started a year ago when a handful of people got together to explore sharing a commmon antenna. But each additional hookup diminishes the signal under such a conventional arrangement, and the talk soon progressed to cable.

Potomac Valley Television, the Cumberland commercial cable company, had considered expanding into the Oldtown area a few years before and found it economically unprofitable.

To the Oldtown people, that left only one alternative -- do it themselves.

Led by W. Richard McNally, a circuit-riding Methodist preacher and a relative newcomer to the area, the Oldtowners won county approval last April and a $232,436 U.S. Commerce Department grant in June. Their REA loan has a tentative okay, and another federal grant application is pending.

They are currently appealing an IRS denial of their tax-exempt status and negotiating with the State Highway Administration to lay five miles of cable along Maryland Rte. 51. These are bureaucratic hurdles that McNally believes can be overcome.

McNally, 33, possesses a John Denver-wholesome look. Armed with loose-leaf volumes packed with cable brochures, he speaks excitedly of "our industry... Because this is all so brand new and in flux, nobody knows how it will affect them."

But along the mountain ridges and down in the hollows here, there is great anticipation.

"There's gonna be some good sports shows, ain't there, Rick?" said Howard Youngblood, Shirley's husband, to the minister.

Yucch," said his wife, who is looking forward to watching movies.

In her three-room home nestled against a mountainside, Edith Bible, 67, gets poor radio reception and a single snowy picture from Altoona, Pa. "In the summer when the leaves comes on," she said, "you can't even see the faces."

Surrounded by framed pictures of her six grown children, plus Christ, John F. Kennedy and country singer Bill Anderson, she is looking forward to watching the religious shows now heard but not seen.

And a few miles away, Guy and Mabel Evans are looking forward to almost anything but Shakespearean plays which they say dominate the one clear station they now receive from Morgantown, W.Va.

The Evans' set receives a herringbone pattern, whose origins are unknown. "For a while," Guy Evans said, "we thought it was Willie Davis with his CB over the hill, but it wasn't that."

Evans has spent hundreds of dollars on antennas and boosters to no avail. "As soon as lightning strikes a bit, it knocks it right out," he said.

A former TV repairman who works in Cumberland, Evans and his wife have donated a piece of ground for the dish-shaped receiver that will pick up the satellite signals for Oldtown area viewers.

In line for a free cable connection is the Oldtown School, whose two black-and-white and eight color sets are unused except in conjunction with three videotape cassette machines. "I feel frustrated and the teachers feel frustrated and the kids lose out," Lamented Charles Albright, the schools' media specialist.

And in this corner of Appalachia, where the average resident has only an eigth-grade education, there is great hope and little fear for what urban critics have come to call "the idiot box."

"Cable," said Evelyn Twigg, "means we will get to see all those things we read about in TV Guide."