It's spring in the mountains of rural West Virginia, and the air is filled with the rich smells of fresh-dug gardens, and of simmering ramps -- a traditional wild woods delicacy that tastes of garlic, onion and damp earth.

In this tiny community of 1,900, there also is the ringing of carpenter's hammers and the rumbling of bulldozers. Parsons, which suffered millions of dollars in damage during last fall's floods, is slowly starting to rebuild.

Of all the West Virginia communities caught by the floods, Parsons was the hardest hit, according to the governor's office. About 90 percent of the businesses and 80 percent of the homes were damaged or destroyed, according to local estimates.

To say that the water ruined the new sanctuary of the Parsons Presbyterian Church, or washed away Delbert Little's 1977 Buick, is barely to touch upon the heartbreak that occurred here.

"It aged me 10 years," said Sheila Crakes, 22, who was separated for several days from her two young sons. Caught by the rapidly rising water, she sought refuge in a funeral home. "Somebody said to me afterward, 'I saw a body in the river,' and I said, 'No you didn't -- I had her upstairs with me.' "

Said Ernie Carr, a city council member and volunteer firefighter: "I'm not much for telling all them things, but I guess I did have a lot of damage." His E&M Trucking Co. was washed downriver -- a minimum $130,000 loss, and none of it insured. "I was too far up for the water, everybody thought."

Parsons is a place where the men wear blue jeans and work boots, where the parking lot at Shirley's Restaurant is full of Ford and Chevy pickups. Most people labor in the deep coal mines, in construction or at nearby plants. Some are forklift and furnace operators at the Kingsford charcoal briquette factory.

The small city also is surrounded by the vast Monongahela National Forest, whose brushy hills yield hardwoods for the charcoal plant, as well as bear, deer and turkey. Freezers are full of wild meats, and back yard gardens are important.

Crakes speaks sadly of the family photos lost in the floods, and of the ceramic kitchen canisters taken by the waters. But, she is most upset about the 75 quarts of home-canned tomatoes she had to throw out. "And I worked so hard," she said.

"These people are resourceful," said Emery Thompson Jr., president of the Citizens National Bank. "They don't sit back and wait for government money, the way they do in some cities. If they don't have it, they make it. They don't sit on their cans and say 'gimme, gimme, gimme.' "

Parsons has suffered floods before. It is fed by three rivers -- the Shaver's Fork and the Blackfork, which converge to form the Cheat River. In 1955, water lapped at the second step of the brick courthouse. But last November, the water rose higher and faster than anybody could remember.

In the days that followed, almost $20 million in federal and state funds poured into Tucker County, for which Parsons is the county seat, according to John Price, press secretary for Gov. Arch Moore Jr. That does not include the considerable help provided by the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and other organizations.

The money financed the rebuilding of roads, the repair of public buildings, the establishment of emergency trailer parks, National Guard cleanup and various types of assistance for individuals and businesses. Even so, some residents agonized over whether they should stick with Parsons, or abandon it forever.

In the best of times, Parsons has to work at survival, with an unemployment rate that hovers around 20 percent. Jobs were a deciding factor for some, as many businesses, including the charcoal briquette plant, had suffered heavy damage. For others, it was a question of the city's future.

One who decided to go was Jim Ours, 60, a retired telephone company worker. He had just repainted his kitchen canary yellow when the floods struck. Ours had installed a new Norge stove and a gleaming new 13-cubic-foot General Electric refrigerator.

Now, all that is left of Ours' kitchen is peeling paint and a stove clogged with mud. His blue metal front porch chairs are still covered with silt, and his lace dining room curtains are muddy, too. The living room floor is buckled, and a water stain halfway up the stairs marks where the river was.

The other day, Ours stood outside on a stepladder and chipped away at rotted wood. He said his dream is to live in a spot where it never rains, and where there are no rivers to overflow.

"Honey," he said, gazing up at the home that belonged to his grandmother, "I'm going to fix this thing up, sell it and move to Arizona. At the end of the month, this is it for me."

One who almost left was Richard Harper, 29, of Harper's Body Shop. The Blackfork River picked up his ranch house, washed it off its foundation, and left it smashed against a stand of trees. "I gave a lot of thought to moving," he said.

"But now, everything's starting to come back together for me, slow but sure. My job's here. I was raised here all my life. I like the town. If I left, and everybody left, there wouldn't be no more town." He's having a new ranch house built on the site of the old foundation.

Shortly after the floods, the town's newspaper, the Parsons Advocate, ran a picture of a group of local businessmen sitting on outdoor bleachers behind the grade school. They wore mud-stained jeans and baseball caps. The caption read: "Planning Parsons' Future."

One by one, these people took out advertisements in the Advocate and announced their plans to rebuild. "We Ain't Turnin' Tail!" said Bishoff's Auto Center, adding that the store planned to distribute symbolic Exxon tiger tails for people to hang from their rear-view mirrors.

Londa Rigney wrote a poem, "Parsons Lives," for the newspaper. It read, in part: "A mountaineer does not know 'quit.' He does not moan or rave. He buckles down to work again. To see what he can save."

At Barb's Drug Store, the damage was so bad that the owners tore down a wall and employed a front-end loader to shovel the soggy pills, cold medicines and boxes of toothpaste out onto the street for the National Guard to cart away.

Lorren Lambert of Lambert Chevrolet-Oldsmobile went looking for the 96 cars, trucks and motorcycles he had lost, and found most strewn for five miles down the Cheat River.

The flood had washed everything out of the JG Store, and left a downtown parking meter draped with clothes. Owners Geraldine and Kenneth Teagarden decided they had no choice but to rebuild: Selling clothes is what they know how to do.

The Kingsford Products Co., which employs 150 local people, suffered $7 million worth of damage but vowed to stay. "Nothing -- not a tornado, flood, earthquake, hailstorm or even a volcanic eruption will change that," read a notice printed in the newspaper.

Today, roughly half of Parsons' businesses are back. At tle JG Store, for example, the shipments of pants and summer shirts began arriving three weeks ago. Soon, the Wranglers will be back on the shelves. "We're doing pretty good, considering," said Geraldine Teagarden, whose flood losses totaled $500,000.

The charcoal briquette plant resumed full operation March 1, according to plant manager Harold McCloud. At the Hinchcliff Lumber Co., where the rivers are estimated to have poured through the plant at 55 mph, causing more than $300,000 in damage, life also has resumed.

Officials at the plants said they felt a strong responsibility to their employes, many of whom had lost everything in the floods. "After the flood, we certainly considered moving," said Hinchcliff's Don Wehr, whose local employes now total 90. "But we had to roll up our sleeves and get to work immediately to see what we could do not to do that."

Elsewhere in Parsons, P.J.'s Hair Professionals has opened a new beauty salon, the Citizens National Bank smells of new wall-to-wall carpeting, and Shirley Thompson is back at her restaurant grill, cooking up the same homemade soups and coconut cream pies she is famous for.

"Reopening has been one of those slow birth things," said car dealer Lambert. "It's little by little."

The debt -- the heavy, long-term debt -- is something nobody wants to think much about. "Most of these people cannot afford to have a burden on their shoulders for 30 years," said Sandra Nestor, director of the Tucker Interfaith Recovery Effort.

People are relying on a variety of assistance, including from relatives and friends. At Citizens National Bank, with assets of $11 million, loans have increased about 10 percent.

But about 48 families are still living in emergency government trailer housing. One trailer resident is David Gill, 26. On a recent morning, he sat on the trailer steps wearing a "Mountain Fever -- Catch It" hat and tattoos across his knuckles. Inside, a baby's cries mixed with sounds of daytime television.

Gill is unemployed, living on government assistance. He said he did not lose much in the flood because he did not have much. "Been treated pretty good, though," he said. "At least the government is trying to help the people with the floods and all." Eventually, Gill hopes to scrape together some money and buy a house.

Those who can afford building materials, or who are lucky enough to receive donations, will be aided in their rebuilding efforts by a group of Mennonite volunteer laborers coming from as far as Kansas, said Marvin Fricke of Christian Public Services.

Another group, the Flood Recovery Project, is helping residents in four counties cope with depression and other stress-related problems. The nonprofit organization also has dug two community gardens in Parsons, and it hopes to find donations of seeds, garden tools and canning equipment, said Judy McCauley, an outreach worker.

Meanwhile, the cleanup goes on. Many of Parsons' streets and river banks are still strewn with debris -- a smashed typewriter, a child's soggy pink parka, Ernie Carr's maroon tractor-trailer, which he had just finished paying for.

The levees over the Blackfork and the Shaver's Fork rivers have been rebuilt, but people wonder whether they're strong enough. Town elections are next month. And the McClain Printing Co. has published a souvenir book, "Killing Waters -- The Great West Virginia Flood of 1985."

On the last page, there is a quote from the Rev. Meade L. Gutshall: "Parsons is down, but not out."