"Welcome to Limestone, home of the world's best potatoes . . . biggest bombers," the highway sign begins.

The boasts almost had to be rewritten. Limestone came close to becoming a ghost town.

Nearly four years ago the Air Force announced that it would remove its B52 bombers from Loring Air Force Base here in a move that would have reduced operations by 83 percent and delivered a devastating economic blow to this hard-pressed region.

By one Pentagon estimate, the loss of loring would have reduced personal income in the four towns of Limestone, Caribou, Presque Isle and Fort Fairfield by more than $45 million a year.

The unemployment rate would have hit 22 percent. About 2,000 civilian jobs would have been lost.

Limestone, a one-street town untouched by even the modest economic growth that has come to Caribou, a few miles on the other side of the air base -- counts military personnel and dependents in its population.

If the more than 4,000 people living here because of Loring are substrated, the town is left with a population of fewer than 3,000.

There is, in effect, no second economic base in this town. The school system, Limestone's biggest employer, would have shrunk to less than half its size if the base had been reduced as the Pentagon planned.

When the decision to put back Loring was announced, it seemed only a new chapter in the military's shift from the Northeast to the South and Southwest that has been taking place since the early 1960s.

But people here wondered how Loring had lost its strategic significance.

When Loring was built on 8,880 acres between 1943 and 1953, the Air Force proclaimed its importance as the base closet to the Soviet Union -- and to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies -- on U.S. soil.

"Our enemy was still the same. Our allies were still the same. The plants were still the same and there was no more or less snow and ice, so why was it no longer strategically important?" insurance salesman Paul Haines remembers asking.

Armed with their strategic argument and prompted by their economic self-interest, local residents formed the Save Loring Committee, with Haines as chairman.

The Mained Congressional delegation, backed by grass-roots support here, won the first complete reversal of a Pentagon decision and saved Loring by winning Senate passage of an unprecedented amendment.

The amendment would have forbiden shrinking Loring, the first time that Congress moved to block a specific Pentagon base-closing decision.

That amendment gave Loring's supporters their first real bargaining power.

Negotiations continued into last fall, but finally a compromise was struck and the amendment was dropped in a Senate-House conference in return for Defence Secretary Harold Brown's announcement that Loring would remain fully operational.

Despite the victory, Maine Sens. Edmund S. Muskie and William S. Cohen urged the Save Loring Committee to stay in business. It changed its name to the Keep Loring Committee and is now at work pressing the Air Force to make major improvements to the base.

Haines said the Air Force stopped capital, expenditures at Loring in 1966, and much of the base housing is in such poor condition and so inadequate that it should be replaced rather than repaired.

Haines and John Colton, the executive director of the Loring Readjustment committee, think that surviving the threat of losing the air base may have lasting positive effects for this isolated region of central Aroostook County.

"The biggest enemy we have is the provincralism of the different towns here," Colton said. "A rivalry in sports is okay, but we have taken it too far."

"Its was the first time that Aroostook citizens from different towns organized for a common purpose," Haines said.

A Loring closing could have come on the heels of bad years for the major agricultural crop -- potatoes -- and the recent loss of jet passenger service to the region. Delta Airlines pulled out when airline deregulation permitted it to abandon the routes to nearby Presque Isle.

"Some people tend to think the state stops at Bangor," Presque Isle city manager Dana Connors said of Aroostook County isolation.

The loring decision, however, has boosted investor confidence, Connors said. The region, whose per capita income in 1976 was $4,647 compared to the U.S. average of $6,396, is hoping to benefit from the discovery of copper and other ores about 25 miles west of Presque Isle.

In this northern most region of the eastern United States, the economic picture is still not bright. "All the Loring decision meant was that things would stay tough -- but they weren't going to get any tougher," Colton said.