CATOCTIN FURNACE -- On a recent Saturday night, about 50 people -- mostly young men and women -- stood in the back yard of a home here that offered a sweeping view of the countryside and distant Sugarloaf Mountain. They listened to nearly two hours of "white power" speeches and watched a tall, cloth-wrapped cross being burned.
Few outside the immediate area paid any attention, but to leaders of Frederick County communities it was an image they would like to go away.
It was a meeting of a Ku Klux Klan group that for years has called part of the county home and the gathering represented the group's latest effort to get its message beyond this rural Catoctin mountains area.
The Klan's leader lives in a small, unincorporated community called Rocky Ridge, just east of Thurmont. Occasionally, Klansmen gather there for rallies, but they also show up from time to time in nearby towns, dressed in white robes, standing on street corners, passing out propaganda.
The secret society, as it has been referred to over the years, makes its presence known throughout the county periodically -- robed Klansmen protested outside a gay bar in Frederick and one member ran unsuccessfully for county commissioner last fall. But county officials contend the group remains largely ignored by the vast majority of residents.
"I think a lot of people don't even know they're around here," said Emmitsburg Mayor William Carr. "They're such a small entity, it doesn't raise a concern for a lot of people."
Added Frederick Mayor Jim Grimes: "To the best of my knowledge, the only two names that have admitted to any association with the Klan are Donald Toms and Roger Kelly. Otherwise, I haven't heard much association with the Klan."
Mr. Kelly, 42, a brick-factory worker, is the Imperial Wizard of the Invincible Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Mr. Toms, 41, a mechanic who lives near Catoctin Furnace, created an uproar two years ago when he entered a KKK-decorated car in a demolition derby at the Great Frederick Fair.
The men's presence and that of those they enlist creates tension in at least one county town -- Thurmont.
"They cause some real bad image problems for the town," said Mayor Terry Best. "People tend to associate them with Thurmont. They create negative feelings and that hurts the community, and it hurts our image. I think most people don't want them here."
Thurmont officials tried to stop the Klan from parading through the town several years ago, but the organization took the town to court -- and won.
"We tried to stop them," the mayor said. "We took a stand. I think we were the only town around here to ever try to stop them. It wasn't comfortable. We got heckled and picked on, but we stood up to them."
Town officials, he said, keep an eye on Klan members when they're in town, as they were recently, recruiting. Thurmont was one of about a dozen towns the Klan swept through in Frederick, Baltimore, Carroll, Howard and Montgomery counties.
"The [recruiting] tour went real good," Mr. Kelly said. "We covered 275 miles and passed out more than 650 fliers. We got the word out."
The Saturday night rally promoted by the Klan fliers -- at a ranch-style home along Kellys Store Road, a country lane lined with homes and farms just off U.S. 15 here -- was a typical turnout, organizers said.
The message at the rally from Mr. Toms and others was that the 1990s Klan is a far cry from the violent KKK founded after the Civil War and that has been associated with white nightriders dragging black people out of their homes, whipping, shooting or assaulting them, as well as mob violence against civil rights demonstrators in the South in the 1960s.
The '90s Klan, Mr. Toms said, shuns labels, such as being racist, that have been used to describe the organization. Klansmen prefer, he said, to call themselves separatists -- they oppose affirmative-action programs and believe white society should be separated from other races.
"Times have changed. The Klan has changed," said Mr. Toms, the father of two grown daughters who says he has been a Klan member for three years. "We don't go out and beat people at night. We stay within the law. We're just separatists. We don't think we're better than other races. But we don't want to have to socialize with them if we don't want to."
Added Shelly Bowie, 30, a mother of two and cashier from Calvert County who was among the Klan members at the rally: "We'd like a white America. We want to keep the white race pure."
Besides the rhetoric, the rally offered KKK souvenirs, hats, T-shirts, knives, belt buckles and stickers for $5 and up.
The group's "official" rhetoric might have changed, but the Klan is pretty much the same, said Laurie Wood, a senior field researcher with the Klanwatch Project in Montgomery, Ala. "It makes their message more palatable, but it's the same old Klan. They're putting on a public facade."
More than 100 Klan organizations are known across the country, she said. Klanwatch estimates 5,500 to 6,000 members are active in the groups and, probably, thousands of others are supporters and sympathizers. Locally, Mr. Kelly declines to reveal his group's membership, but claims that Klansmen have enlisted from 11 states, from New York to Florida.
A Kellys Store Road resident, who declined to be named, nevertheless insisted after the recent rally that the Klan's presence is "not intimidating to us as neighbors."
"There's a hidden understanding that the KKK is what it is, and that's not talked about," he continued. "We talk more about the big trucks that drive up and down this road than anything the KKK does. We don't often see them."
Dan Mahone, a Frederick lawyer and a member of Concerned Citizens for Racial Justice, which has challenged the Klan openly in the past few years, said it was no coincidence that the recent KKK rally followed a much-publicized controversy surrounding a Frederick anniversary ball linked by some to the Confederacy.
"The KKK measures responses to these types of things, and then, when it's more convenient for them to show up somewhere, they do it," he said. "It's just another one of those incidents that happen here that makes it not really conducive to the creation of a multicultural society."
The Klan's Mr. Kelly, however, countered that the rally had been planned for five months. He also discounted statements by various officials that his organization was mainly two men. "We have a substantial number of members in the city of Frederick," he said. "We've always had a substantial number of members in the country. A large portion of our members are silent."