Depending on an outhouse seems to belong to a far distant time, but for some Americans, an outhouse is the only way of life they have ever known.

Mattie Whitaker's outhouse sits in back of her white farmhouse, past the woodpile and next to the pen where the little hounds await their next hunting trip. Whitaker's husband, John, still makes use of the facility, but not Mattie, not anymore.

"I'm scared to death of snakes," explained Whitaker, 66, recounting a friend's too-close encounter with one in an outhouse and her own recent decision to use a non-flush indoor toilet she empties each day. "I don't want to run into any snakes - I would have a stroke."

For many Americans, spoiled by modern conveniences, the idea of even sharing a bathroom is hard to imagine; depending on an outhouse seems to belong to a far distant time. But in at least 1.1 million homes in the United States - more in the rural South than in any other region - the plumbing is inadequate or incomplete, meaning no indoor bathrooms or hot-and-cold running water, according to 1990 census data that officials fear are seriously underreported. For many of these residents, using an outhouse is the only way of life they have ever known.

Beyond the obvious health and environmental concerns, the region's tens of thousands of homes in this condition do not jibe with the progressive image that officials of the New South are trying hard to cultivate. In North Carolina, which is enjoying unprecedented prosperity and advancement, officials are launching the first program in the country to eliminate these embarrassing remnants of the past. Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. (D) has declared the problem one of his top priorities.

"People know North Carolina now as this shining star of the Sun Belt," said state Commerce Secretary Rick Carlisle, whose department is overseeing the program, "and it surprises them that despite the prosperity, we still have these residuals of 30 years ago, when we were a poorer state in many ways."

Right now, according to Carlisle, North Carolina has its lowest unemployment rate in history, around 3 percent overall, but as low as 1 percent in the metropolitan areas. Last year set a record for business investments in the state, about $8 billion for new firms and expansions. The state boasts the nation's second largest banking center behind New York, in Charlotte, and Research Triangle Park is renowned as a cutting-edge technology center. But at least 43,000 homes still lack adequate indoor plumbing, among the most in the nation, according to the 1990 census. State officials suspect that, in fact, there may be as many as 200,000.

The new program aims to ensure that all North Carolina residents eventually will be hooked up to septic tanks or sewer systems. It is beginning in two counties at opposite ends of the state: Halifax County, which is in the eastern farmlands about 90 miles northeast of Raleigh, where Whitaker lives and outhouses are prevalent; and Mitchell County, high in the Blue Ridge Mountains near the Tennessee line, where many of the homeowners, although their houses are equipped with bathrooms and toilet fixtures, are guilty of what is called straight-piping.

In these houses, blackwater, the polite term for raw waste, is piped directly into mountain rivers and streams - an illegal practice, although outhouses still are legal in the state.

Under the new program, called the Small Town Environment Program, or STEP, each county has been allotted $250,000 in federal community block-grant money to upgrade as many of the homes as possible. The intent is to involve the community, much like the Habitat for Humanity house-building program does, in providing labor and other donations. Once the problems in these pilot counties are addressed, officials hope to expand the program to others.

"This is not a typical government project, it's not throwing money at a problem and hoping it goes away," said Halifax County planner Chris Williams. "The idea is to get groups of people together to volunteer the labor. We're trying to get bulk buying of things we need, trying to get more for less."

No other state as yet has undertaken such a specific program, although many areas are working on improving sewer and water systems with the help of federal and state agencies. Alabama has more than 27,500 homes lacking adequate plumbing, according to the 1990 census; Florida, 28,000; Mississippi, about 22,000; Tennessee, more than 32,000.

In Virginia about 46,000 homes lack adequate plumbing, including most of the 52 houses in Bayview, the Northampton County hamlet that was the focus of several Washington Post articles last year.

Although not confined to the South - California reported 69,000 such homes; New York state, 67,000 - the numbers reflect high poverty rates in rural areas of the region, said Douglas C. Bachtel, a rural sociologist at the University of Georgia. Census figures, for example, show

Georgia with about 28,000 such houses, most of them concentrated in the 61 Georgia counties that have per-capita income levels even lower, he said, than that of Mississippi, the state always near the top of the nation's poverty list.

"In the rural South, you have this area known as the Black Belt, based on skin color," Bachtel said, "that goes way back to the plantation days. It extends from Virginia to Texas, and in terms of square miles, it is bigger than Spain. It is America's Third World, and houses without indoor plumbing are endemic there."

Before the modern era, in the 18th century, outhouses, or privies, were considered a decorative as well as necessary component of American gardens, along with summerhouses and arbors, according to a recent article in Antiques magazine. Back then, the technology for indoor plumbing already was known, but outdoor toilets, often built into garden walls, were considered more hygienic.

In time, indoor bathrooms, the more the better, became a major symbol of prosperity. Even as late as 1950, however, one-fourth of American homes lacked indoor plumbing, and in 1970, about 10 percent of the houses in the South still was lagging.

In 1996, North Carolina began an amnesty program for residents who had been using the straight-piping method, most of them in the western part of the state: If they reported what they were doing, they would not be fined.

The practice had begun long ago in sparsely populated areas, and had continued, with residents daunted by the $2,000 minimum price for installing a septic-tank system. The current STEP program was born after state officials decided to address outhouses as well, and the Rensselaerville Institute, a nonprofit foundation that has been working with struggling communities to solve water and sewer problems for 25 years, was brought in as a consultant.

Although straight-piping may be more immediately harmful to the environment than outhouses, it also is more readily fixable because the homes involved already have bathroom facilities in place. That was the case with Paul Robinson's house.

His was the first in Mitchell County to be addressed under the new program; a phalanx of state and local officials arrived at his hollow in the Bandana community a couple of weeks ago to watch as workers dug a hole for a septic tank that will not cost him a penny. Kathy Young, who is helping coordinate the county's program, estimates that 500 to 600 area homes may be involved in straight-piping, with much of the waste eventually rolling into the Toe River.

"It bothered me, but I didn't rightly know what to do about it," said Robinson, 78, a retired furniture worker, about the pipe that had fed raw sewage into a nearby stream since he built the small house 35 years ago. "Then this program came along and I jumped at it. We're kind of behind in the times here, but we're catching up."

At the time of this story, here in Halifax County, one of the poorest counties in North Carolina with 58,000 residents, the foliage has not yet grown up enough to completely shield all the outhouses that accompany as many as 500 rural homes. The project is more complicated and expensive here because, in many cases, actual bathrooms will have to be constructed, often involving old houses that will have a difficult time meeting county codes.

As word of the improvements has trickled through the two targeted communities - Hollister, home of the small Haliwa Saponi tribe; and Tillery, a former plantation whose settlement as a black community goes back to the New Deal - residents have become excited at the prospect of having bathrooms and kitchen sinks at last.

But certain nervousness also has creeped in at coming forward with their needs: Will the county find their homes in such disrepair that inspectors will condemn them and make the residents move? Will the government really deliver on this unexpected promise? Some people also are deeply embarrassed by their plight.

In Addie Thompson's house, however, there is nothing but anticipation. Thompson is 83 and although she has depended on a wheelchair for seven years, she is still infused with energy. She likes to talk about the biscuits she can bake, the 18 children she gave birth to, the dozen still living and the hard work that shaped her life.

Her old frame house sits on a wide green lawn, the old-fashioned water pump at the side. In back is the leaning tin and wood outhouse, no longer usable. Thompson, her niece and daughter must use a receptacle they empty in the woods. A tin washtub awaits bath time. When she contemplates the luxury of a bathroom, Thompson's eyes shine with delight.

"Oh yes, I'm going to have me a good, nice bath," she said. "I'll just go in there and relax. It'll be so lovely it might even get me to walking again.