Mary Collins and her six children are making it through one of the coldest winters in local history with a wood stove and a collection of rags and old clothing plugging the holes in the dilapidated wooden shack they rent in Brandywine.

They have no electricity and no indoor plumbing. The children fetch water for household needs from a neighbor's well, a few hundred yards across a snow-covered field. Taking a bath in a basin, with wind whistling through the torn plastic sheeting covering the windows, is "no problem" for her and the children, says Collins.

"You wonder why no one has gotten sick?" she asked. "I'm old-fashioned. I get a can of water, set it on the stove and keep VICKS vapoRub) in it. I keep the stove banked all night. It's rough, but it works."

Collins is not her real name. Like many other victims of rural poverty, she is not interested in having the rest of Prince George's County know about her problems.

She is eligible for the state-run energy assistance program, which offers families help with winter fuel bills. But like so many needy people in the country, she sometimes must be prodded to seek out the help.

Despite grinding poverty, residents interviewed in rural Prince George's and Montgomery counties said they are able to withstand a cold winter, and they are reluctant to seek public assistance. They also believe they are better off than the people they sometimes see on the television news, freezing in urban slums.

"I think we're doing better then them -- so far," said James Savoy of Baden, in Prince George's, whose small frame house is in good enough repair to hold most of the heat from two air-type stoves. He says his family is accustomed to the cold: "We ain't been cold around here, no way."

"They don't want to go through the hassle, they don't want to go through the red tape" of applying for public aid, said Wendy Whittington, a Brandywine native who has done volunteer work among her nighbors for the last five of her 27 years.

"When they go (to government agencies for assistance), they act like they're (the agency employes) giving them something. They'd rather not deal with it. They don't want to feel they are taking something that doesn't belong to them," said Whittington.

Collins has lived in the house at the edge of a Brandywine tobacco field for about 10 years. She wanted to have it wired for electricity, but the old landlord died before he could fill out the consent papers and the new owner would not approve the idea. She does not blame him for the two inches of sky that show at the top and bottom of her door, the rotted beams or the fist-sized holes in the wallboard of the 10-by-20-foot cabin. Besides, she confides, she has not paid her $40-a-month rent for about a year.

"If I got the rent, I give it to him. If I don't, he understands. Because he said he doesn't have the money to fix the place, I don't have to pay him," she explaines.

Her "air-type stove," common in rural frame dwellings, is a galvanized steel tub with a small grate at one end and a metal flue leading to a brick chimney at the other. It must burn continuously to keep heat rising through the chimney to warm the upper floor, and consumes a cord of wood in about three weeks.

Collins has not paid the $75 she owes for fire wood delivered in early January but she says the man who brings the woodd, like her landlord, "understands. Being that my (food) stamps didn't come on time, I had to take money out of my (public assistance) check to put food in here," she explains.

A federally sponsored assistance program that pays as much as $325 per season for oil-heated homes and a maximum of $209 for fire wood is one of two major sources of aid that can help ease the hardships some rural residents face. In Prince George's County there is also the Neighbor Improvement Program, which can provide up to $11,000 per household to pay for installation of sanitary and water facilities as well as some needed renovations.

According to Charles Ross of the Prince George's Community Development Administration, "Probably half the people who are living outside of the subdivisions south of Upper Marlboro could qualify for the program and could probably use the assistance." Renters are not eligible for the program, which paid for renovation of some 20 country dwellings last year.

One of the most unusual rented homes in Prince George's is to be found on the shore of the frozen Patuxent River, where Frances Windsor and five children live in a school bus set on cinder blocks. Warmth comes from two kerosene heaters on the bus floor, which is covered with carpet remnants, towels and clothing.

The children, whose ages range from 4 to 11, do not seem to mind the wind whipping off the frozen river. Windsor pays $25 a month rent to her parents, who live in a frame house adjacent to the bus.

"I tell you it's better than nothing," said Windsor, who recalls once having lived in a two-car garage before the family boarded the stationary bus in the fall of 1979.

"We lived in here last winter and we'll live through this one again," said Windsor. "We stay warmer in here than we did in the garage."

Her parents' home also needs repairs to keep out the cold air. Her mother Dorothy Windsor says the north wall of the little house barely stops the wind. She says she looked into the neighborhood improvement and the state weatherization programs, but found the regulations and eligibility questions were too much to put up with.

Her family income, fixed at about $600 per month, comes from disability, Social Security and aid payments for supporting one of her grandchildren.She says she must stretch it to pay as much as $200 for kerosene in the coldest months.

"They's not much insulation on the front. We've had to use quilts. My husband put some tarpaper and shingles on but it didn't do any good," said Windsor. "But I've done raised six children in here. Ain't none of them froze to death yet."

Out in Montgomery County, the cold doesn't bother Mary Hyson. She probably wouldn't have noticed it was a colder winter than usual, except that 10 pounds of potatoes froze in her kitchen.

"I went to peel them and they all frozen. I ain't never had them freeze before," she said softly, sitting next to the wood stove that is her only source of heat.

But people like Mary Hyson, who is 76, can put up with the cold.

"I was born in a log cabin in Wheaton. I seen snow come through and fall on our faces when we were in bed. Mama came and shook the snow off us," she said. "The cold don't bother me; I'm used to it."

Her four-room house on Stewart Lane in Silver Spring is just around the corner from the White Oak Shopping Center. She's been there 40, years, on a tiny plot of land her father gave to her when she married. Her father worked hard, she says, and she never wanted for anything.

A widow for the past 15 years, one of her two sons lives next door and the other, who is 36 and retarded, lives at home so that she can look after him.

She's wary of developers, who have built a sprawling townhouse complex at the end of Stewart Lane. "Somebody's tryin' to force us out," she says. "Sanitary people tryin' to get all us people who been back here 20 years. Every day, people comin' in here and wantin' to know if we'd sell our land.

"I ain't figurin' on sellin'.

"Where I'm goin'? There's no place to go. I can't buy these $75,000 or $80,000 homes."

The comforts of home are not many for her, but, she says, "I'm not dissatisfied. I ain't used to a whole lot."

She carries water up from her sister's home down the lane, three trips a day with a five-gallon bucket. Sometimes her son Edward helps. He ducked out while she was talking and came back with a handful of wet newspaper.

"Why'd you bring this? It won't burn," she asked, but then rolled it up and dropped it into the stove anyway.

"I like the woodstove because it comes up fast. It's cold when I get up in the morning."

She and her son live on their Social Security checks, which add up to $339 a month. "I was doin' some ironing, but people switched from cotton to that other stuff. Plus I have to be here for him," she said mentioning toward Edward.

Yet her days do not pass slowly. "By the time I get up, get the wood, get me some water, do some sewing, a little cookin' -- the day's about gone."

In summer she raises vegetables and catches fish and crabs for the winter. Late on a wintry afternoon, the aroma of fish frying wafts through the little house, and a sparkling white tablecloth is set with two plates.

"Tablecloths is my weakness," she said. "I get them at yard sales, sometimes for 10 cents. This one cost a quarter.