Virus imperils AA co-founder’s birthplace, a virtual shrine

Virus imperils AA co-founder’s birthplace, a virtual shrine

EAST DORSET, Vt. — The shrinelike birthplace of one of the two Vermont natives who founded Alcoholics Anonymous is in danger of closing, another victim of the restrictions made necessary by the coronavirus pandemic.

The shutdown from March until midsummer meant no people could stay in rooms in the hotel where AA co-founder Bill Wilson, who according to the organization’s lore, was “born behind the bar” in 1895.

“The house is a symbol of hope. It’s a symbol of humanity. It’s a symbol of our commonality, and it’s a place to feel it, touch it, smell it, experience it,” said Dr. Andrea Barthwell, a former official in the Office of National Drug Control Policy who visited Wilson House in 2003 while promoting an effort of the George W. Bush administration to help people fight addiction.

As someone in recovery, Barthwell said, walking the halls of the Wilson House had a profound impact.

“It would be an incredible loss to have that go down because of COVID,” she said. “COVID has destroyed enough.”

The pandemic shutdown meant recovery groups couldn’t rent the East Dorset hotel for seminars, and the local Alcoholics Anonymous groups that frequently attracted people from nearby states or even farther couldn’t use the meeting rooms.

AA memorabilia festoons the largest meeting room in Wilson House, a hotel built in the mid-1800s. There’s the 1999 New Hampshire license plate ODAAT — for the organization’s slogan, “One day at a time.” There’s BIGBOOK from New Jersey, GRACEAA from New York and YESICAN from Nebraska.

Elsewhere in the house is a first edition of 1939’s “Alcoholics Anonymous,” frequently referred to as the Big Book, written by Wilson, which has now been printed an estimated 35 million times. There is a light that is never extinguished in the room where Wilson was born.

AA works by having recovered alcoholics collaborate personally with people who have not yet recovered. Before the pandemic, the anonymous meetings where people frequently give only their first names were held in most communities of any size most every day.

While people who have recovered with the help of AA swear by it, there is a lack of scientific consensus about its effectiveness as a treatment method. Barthwell said that is largely because AA won’t affiliate with any organizations to be studied and because people who use AA are self-selectors, so there can be no randomized, placebo-controlled study.

The Wilson House is a non-profit organization that is legally separate from Alcoholics Anonymous, but it gets most of its income from people who stay in the house and who came to attend one of the seminars, or from the fees or donations from the groups that use it.

Now meetings are being held again at the Wilson House, but distancing requirements mean the crowds are half the size they were, and the weekend seminars that help fill the 14 hotel rooms have been cancelled.

The organization did take advantage of state and federal relief grants, but they’re still facing a $275,000 shortfall for this year’s $500,000 budget.

Wilson House Executive Director Berta Maginniss doesn’t know what will happen next year.

“At some point, there has to be a decision,” she said.

While Wilson was born in the house that bears his name, he was raised by his grandparents in a house nearby that is also owned by the non-profit. After leaving Vermont, Wilson went on to become a New York businessman.

He struggled with alcohol over the years, becoming, as Wilson House Archivist Shawn Harrington put it, “a hopeless drunk,” until an old drinking buddy who had found sobriety helped him stop drinking.

Wilson was about six months sober in mid-1935 and struggling to maintain it when he visited Akron, Ohio, on a business trip. On Mother’s Day, he met fellow Vermont native Dr. Robert Smith, who was struggling to quit drinking.

Wilson was there June 10 when Smith had his last drink, considered the founding of AA.

Wilson later came up with the 12 steps that form the foundation of AA and an estimated 200 other programs, such as Al-Anon, Debtors Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous, that have spun off from it.

Smith died in 1950 and Wilson in 1971. The building where Wilson was born declined until was purchased in 1986 by a friend of the movement, who renovated it and reopened it in 1988.

The Wilson House does not advertise to attract guests, and only a small sign hangs over the main entrance to identify the building.

Lindsey Harty, the Wilson House director of development and someone who is in recovery, said people come from across the world to visit.

“I’ve cried with people and held them in the moment because coming here and being in the presence of Bill’s spirit, you feel healed and you feel whole,” Harty said. “And for people in recovery, particularly new in recovery, feeling whole again is the world. It’s everything.”

Wilson Ring, The Associated Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Kris Sturgess with Calgary Ghostbusters. (Photo from GoFundMe)
GoFundMe account salutes Red Deer prop builder

Kris Sturgess died unexpectedly April 28

If you're heading out to the West Country have a plan in case things go wrong, says Clearwater Regional Fire Rescue Services fire chief Steve Debienne.
(Photo from CRFRS Facebook)
West Country visitors should have an emergency plan: regional fire chief

Cellphones can’t be relied on in many back country areas

Sarcevic leads an impressive list of additions to RDC Kings soccer

In 2019 the RDC Kings soccer program took a major step forward… Continue reading

The Red Deer PCN Women's Fun Run will take on a different look this weekend with rising COVID-19 numbers.
Women’s Fun Run goes ahead this weekend in Red Deer

With new public health measures in place because of rising COVID-19 case… Continue reading

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw asked Albertans to limit travel throughout the province as COVID-19 cases continue to rise. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Red Deer nears 900 active COVID-19 cases

Province reports additional 2,211 COVID-19 cases

Alberta Health Services locked the Whistle Stop Cafe in Mirror on Wednesday morning after owner Christopher Scott refused to comply with health orders. (Photo by Paul Cowley/Advocate staff)
UPDATED: AHS shuts down Whistle Stop Cafe for defying health orders

Justice minister promises to get tough with those ignoring public health orders

LtE bug
Letter: Security company can help with shelter

Why don’t we leave Safe Harbour temporary shelter where it is and… Continue reading

LtE bug
Letter: Good job on K-6 curriculum

Many are questioning the quality of the draft K-6 curriculum. It amazes… Continue reading

Treena Mielke
COVID becomes all too real when someone you love is ‘positive’

The third wave of the pandemic is hitting us hard. It is… Continue reading

Wizards beat Raptors in OT, Toronto playoff bid nearly over

Wizards beat Raptors in OT, Toronto playoff bid nearly over

Toronto Blue Jays' Teoscar Hernandez (37) hits a single to drive in two runs against the Oakland Athletics during the sixth inning of a baseball game in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Grichuk drives in 5, Jays beat A’s 10-4 for series split

Grichuk drives in 5, Jays beat A’s 10-4 for series split

Canada's Sports Hall of Fame 2019 inductee Jayna Hefford speaks in Toronto on Wednesday, October 23, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Three Canadian teams to play in women’s hockey Dream Gap Tour in Calgary

Three Canadian teams to play in women’s hockey Dream Gap Tour in Calgary

Rugby Canada says some members of women’s sevens team have tested positive for COVID

Rugby Canada says some members of women’s sevens team have tested positive for COVID

Team Canada skip Kerri Einarson, centre, makes a shot as lead Briane Meilleur, left, and second Shannon Birchard sweep against Denmark at the Women's World Curling Championship in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, May 6, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Einarson’s five-game win streak ends with loss to Japan at world curling playdowns

Einarson’s five-game win streak ends with loss to Japan at world curling playdowns

Most Read