When Ray Smith recently pulled his tractor into downtown Catharpin, an enclave of three businesses, he pumped 15 gallons of diesel fuel into the 90-gallon tank. A decade ago, Smith would fill up the tractor and be back for more in less than two days. Now, Smith figures, it would take a year to use up that much fuel cutting hay.

"All the ground's gone out here," said Smith, who in 1957 moved to Catharpin off Route 234 (Sudley Road) near the Manassas National Battlefield Park in northeastern Prince William County. Back then, he said, about 35 families lived in the area and a person could drive the six miles to Manassas without seeing another car.

"I love this area," Smith said. "It's really home."

Today nearly 600 families live in Catharpin, and most lots are about five acres and many substantially bigger. With the mid-1980s real estate boom in the area, Smith's hay-cutting work in once vast fields was largely replaced by home building, which he did both for a contractor and himself. But the current housing market sales slump has stalled the growth spurt Catharpin briefly experienced. The community has neither public water nor sewer systems, but that suits many residents just fine.

"The best part is the congeniality and warmth," said Betty Duley, who grew up in the area and is vice chairwoman of the Prince William Historical Commission.

"It's like an old-time community," she said. "The people that live in Catharpin seem to be different. They seem to belong even if they've been here only a week. The people are so giving."

Jody Cundiff, who has worked for six years at the tiny post office in Catharpin, agreed that "everyone here is real friendly." She lives eight miles away in Haymarket -- because, she said, with the average house cost from $200,000 to $600,000, Catharpin is too expensive for her.

Next to the post office, which closes for an hour at noon, is a country store run by Robert Alvey Jr., whose family has been around the area since at least the late 1700s. Alveys have run the post office from time to time and the store, originally in the same building, since the late 1870s. Until he retired this summer, Alvey's uncle, Jack, ran the post office, the fourth Alvey to do so in the last 110 years.

Jack Alvey and other local historians said that Catharpin (pronounced CAT-har-pin) may have been an Indian word, but that more likely the name was taken from a part of a ship's mast. No one knows why.

Catharpin's traceable history starts about the time of the Civil War, when the area first earned its treasured reputation for friendliness.

In 1861, Army Col. John Rice was left for dead near Sudley Church when Amos Benson came across the Union officer's body two days after a battle and nursed him back to health. Not long after, Benson went off to join Confederate forces.

Twenty-five years later, Rice came through the area again. He found that Sudley Church had been rebuilt, but the congregation was having difficulty in paying off the construction debt.

Rice returned to Massachusetts and raised several hundred dollars to pay for a replacement building, which was struck by lightning in 1918 and burned. The Methodist church was rebuilt, and the two-story frame building still in use commands a bluff overlooking Route 234 at the northern edge of Manassas National Battlefield Park.

Down the road near the Mount Calvary Church, Jennie Dean, the daughter of slaves who founded the Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth, is buried.

"We like the sense of history," said Sharon Jackley, who moved to Catharpin from the Los Angeles area two years ago. "California didn't have that."

With the defeat of a shopping mall proposal near Manassas National Battlefield Park two years ago, the only known threat to the rustic nature of Catharpin might be the extension of the Route 234 bypass and the possibility of continuing the highway into Loudoun County, which may be decades away at the earliest, transportation officials said.

Residents do have one gripe: property taxes. The taxes have been driven up by the scarcity of undeveloped land in recent years after years of surging growth in eastern Prince William County.

But with progress comes change. The days when Meg Beefelt had to stop her car to make way for cows being herded down Route 234 are long gone. Nevertheless, she said the Breezy Knolls Estates area still exudes the same charm she fell in love with two decades ago when she moved to Catharpin from Upstate New York in 1970.

"The people who picked to come out here like their solitude," Beefelt said. "That's why I'm out here. It's a neighborhood that retains a small-town flavor. We have enough neighbors that our children had playmates and friends. And if you like privacy, it's great."

Meg Beefelt's husband, Neil Beefelt, now drives down back roads to his job at International Business Machines Corp. in Manassas instead of traveling busy Route 234. The drive still takes 20 minutes.

The Beefelts' house is on a 1.7-acre lot at the end of Shari Court, a grassy plot that slopes down into a wooded grove with a stream. Looking from the living room's picture window or the wood deck, the only sign of civilization is a gray ribbon of road peaking through the woods or the occasional sound of a truck rumbling by.

The view is much different across Route 234, where Jackley lives in a house Ray Smith built off Livia Drive. Her five-bedroom house crowns a gentle hill, giving Jackley a panoramic view of the rolling countryside, sparingly dotted with houses and grazing horses.

The house and lot, at $330,000 two years ago, were basically an even trade financially for the one-third-acre parcel she lived on in the Los Angeles suburb of Thousand Oaks.

Donald Jackley, a pilot for United Airlines, also traded a 90-minute drive to Los Angeles International Airport for a 20-minute commute to Dulles International Airport.

Although the Jackleys have enjoyed living in Catharpin for 1 1/2 years, they are planning to move back to California to be with Sharon Jackley's ailing mother. The Jackleys are trying to sell their house, which has been on the market since January.

But the couple is in no hurry to sell and Sharon Jackley said she is content just to wait for the market to pick up. Until then, she plans to enjoy the view from her house.

"It's lovely not to look out the window and have to wave to your neighbor," she said.