If you're upset by the way things are going in Washington, there may be no better place to come for inspiration than this pleasant little city on the banks of Silver Creek in central Wisconsin.

For it was here one chilly night in the 19th century that a handful of unhappy but determined citizens gathered in a little white schoolhouse to discuss their concerns about where the country was headed at the hands of the national leadership.

After several hours' spirited debate, they formed a new grass-roots political movement that aimed at nothing less than shaping a new course for the nation.

They called themselves the Republican Party.

"We went into the little meeting Whigs, Free Soilers and Democrats," wrote Alvan Bovay, the restless activist who summoned his neighbors to the March 20, 1854, session. "We came out Republicans, and we were the first Republicans in the Union."

Although it has been moved three times since that fateful night, the schoolhouse still stands, an unassuming four-square landmark, now at the corner of Blossom and Blackburn streets at the edge of Ripon's minimal downtown.

Adorned with plaques, signs and tablets that proclaim its historic place in the affairs of state, the schoolhouse seems a reassuring synbol of the power of humble dreams. Emblazoned across the gable end of the building is this brave assertion: "Birthplace of the Republican Party."

What could be more American than that?

But if nothing in the rest of the world is as simple as it seems, why should Ripon, population 7,111, be spared complexity?

For the truth is: Uneasy lies the claim.

The gingerly wording of a brass plaque near the schoolhouse door offers the first clue to a dispute that has smoldered in the hinterland ever since Bovay called his meeting.

"This site possesses national significance in commemorating the history of the United States . . . " asserts the 1974 National Park Service marker with bland ambiguity.

Ripon's official city historian, George Miller, doesn't mince words about the situation: "Oh, at least a dozen places claim to be the birthplace of the Republican Party." He mentioned Lancaster, Pa.; Crawfordsville, Iowa; Danville, Ill., among others.

The best claim may come from Jackson, Mich., 250 miles southeast of here. Just a few months after Bovay's meeting, on July 6, 1854, former Whigs, Free Soilers and Democrats convened a statewide convention of the new Republican Party at Jackson.

Ripon's claim is strengthened by the fact that activist Bovay was a friend of New York newspaper publisher Horace Greeley, who had helped shape the idea of a new political organization to oppose the extension of slavery into Nebraska and the territories. Although Bovay wrote Greeley to report on his first "Republican" meeting, this doesn't cut much mustard with the Jackson crowd.

"I honestly believe we contributed more to the founding of the party," said Max Brail, unofficial historian of Jackson, population 40,000. "We passed legislation here."

"It's a damn good claim," concedes Ripon chronicler Miller, a retired professor of American history at Ripon College, a small independent school here.

After Jackson, the strongest claim may be Pittsburgh's, site of the new party's preliminary national convention, in 1856. Or maybe Philadelphia has a stronger claim, since later that year it hosted the first full-scale national Republican convention.

Perhaps sensitive to the question of Ripon's exact status as cradle of the nation's political elephants, Republican presidents have more or less avoided visiting the town. According to Miller, "no president has done it," although Wendell Willkie campaigned here once and President William Howard Taft once vacationed at Green Lake, a spa about 10 miles away. But that was as close as Taft seems to have gotten.

President Gerald R. Ford campaigned nearby when he was running against Jimmy Carter in 1976, Miller noted. But Ford avoided Ripon like the plague -- just what you might expect of a one-time congressman from Michigan. "Oh, my, he just drove right by," Miller said.

Only President Dwight D. Eisenhower seems to have paid Ripon its due, and that may have been unavoidable, since the 100th anniversary of Bovay's meeting occurred when Eisenhower was halfway through his first term.

But even Ike's presence turns out to have been ghostly. "There was a centennial celebration here," Miller recalled. "They built a torch here, and Ike lit it with a push of the button -- from Washington."

Heedless of Oval Office indifference, when young GOP liberals founded a party think tank in 1962, they called it the Ripon Society after the presumed birthplace of the party.

But perhaps the clearest word on the cradle question comes from a nonpartisan quarter. Says Miller: "I sometimes wonder if it wasn't chambers of commerce, not historians, who became concerned about all this."

Not surprisingly, it is the Ripon Chamber of Commerce that faithfully oversees the little white schoolhouse where an important meeting once took place.