Brandywine, a onetime tobacco center in southern Prince George's County, is a peaceful place.

There are no fast-food restaurants or chain convenience stores, just frame businesses here and there with awnings and signs identifying the owners -- Webb's Grocery, Lena's Grocery, Ruby's Beauty Salon. The houses have big yards and often pastures and fields. Traffic jams are rare, but drivers must watch out for the many gravel trucks and poky school buses along Brandywine Road.

Twenty-five miles from downtown Washington, this sprawling community of about 4,000 is one of the county's most steadfastly rural areas.

"Our general plan looks at Brandywine as part of the county's rural periphery, kind of a green belt around the county," said Craig Rovelstad, a principal planner with the county. "We're not encouraging intensive development there at all."

That suits post office clerk Bess Roberts, who moved to Brandywine from Oxon Hill 24 years ago so she'd have plenty of room to breed Pomeranians. And liquor store owner Giles Fletcher, whose eight-acre spread features 12 horses, six German shepherds and a white split-level house with hanging baskets on the porch. And county employe Pat Carr, who says Brandywine's wooded hills and creeks remind her of her childhood home near Asheville, N.C.

"What fascinates me is how close we are to Washington and how Washington doesn't know we exist," said Carr, who lives on a 75-acre tobacco farm that has been in her husband's family for decades. "I think of Brandywine as rural America, uncluttered, uncongested."

It wasn't precisely intended that way. In the 1880s, when the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad sent four trains through Brandywine daily, planners envisioned a larger community called Brandywine City.

Elaborate sketches dating from that period show a town with 56 blocks and three parks instead of today's small core -- the post office, a few businesses, the fire station.

"The plans were somewhat typical of the grandiose visions for railroad towns then," said John Walton, history division coordinator of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. "None of it materialized."

Brandywine, located east of Rte. 301 with its southern boundary along the Charles County line, was originally a winter camping and hunting ground for the Piscataway Indians.

Forest land was cleared for tobacco 250 years ago, and one of the area's original families -- the Earlys -- seem to have given the community its name.

Legend has it that one of the Early sons, a Revolutionary War veteran, named his home after the 1777 Battle of Brandywine in New Jersey, Walton said.

The area's first subdivision, Brandywine Village, was built in 1938. During the late 1940s, 40 homes were constructed in the Gwynn Park development along what was then the Old Crain Highway.

When that road was widened in 1960 to become Rte. 301, a long-favored New York-to-Florida route, those houses were stranded in the median strip.

Earlier this year, County Executive Parris Glendening imposed a moratorium on further building in the strip, citing traffic concerns.

Today, homes in Brandywine include two-story farmhouses with front and back porches, fairly recent ramblers set on huge lawns and $200,000 horse farms tucked away in wooded areas that are white with dogwoods in the spring.

County sewer and water service does not extend to Brandywine, and most new homes must be built on lots of at least five acres, Rovelstad said.

Industrial development is minimal, but the county has set aside 800 acres for an industrial park near the Charles County border. When the park will be developed is unclear.

"People are looking at it now but it obviously doesn't have the same characteristics as a parcel along the Beltway," Rovelstad said. "As development moves down the 301 corridor, that will probably change."

Increasing traffic along Rte. 301 is a major concern.

The route, used by about 50,000 cars a day, serves as the main north-south commuter road through Charles County, a rapidly growing bedroom community.

It also has gained new popularity among truckers and other motorists who travel between Richmond and Baltimore and find I-95 too congested with local traffic.

Overall traffic on Rte. 301 increases about 6 percent each year, according to the State Highway Administration.

All of which is somewhat disconcerting to residents who don't care to see Brandywine discovered, and inevitably changed.

"A lot of new houses are going up -- seems like police officers really like to live in Brandywine -- but there are still families who have been here since the beginning of time," said Roberts on a recent afternoon as she waited on a steady stream of postal customers, addressing most by their first names.

Fletcher, one of Roberts' neighbors on pasture-lined Letcher Road, said he and his wife Maryann, a real estate agent, and their two children were attracted to Brandywine seven years ago because of its isolation.

"We wanted land and we wanted quiet," said Fletcher, 39, as he paused to chase a pale horse that had begun to wander through the open pasture gate. "And that's what we got."