KATONAH, N.Y. – For many people, a new year brings renewed efforts to better one’s self.
Be it eating less, giving up drugs or drinking, or kicking a retail addiction, the most widely-used form of rehabilitation is 12-Step programs, which have been adopted by more than 650 groups around the world.
The first and most famous of those programs was adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous, which was co-founded by William G. “Bill W.” Wilson in 1935. The book in which those 12 Steps appear, known to AA members as “The Big Book,” was released in 1939 and has since sold 35 million copies.
Those who have visited Stepping Stones in Katonah know the rest: how Bill struggled with alcoholism for 17 years; the toll his recovery efforts had on his wife, Lois; and how a desperate conversation with a childhood friend changed his fate.
Located on 8.1 acres off Oak Road, Stepping Stones is the name given to the historic home of the Wilsons, where they lived until they died—Bill in 1971 and Lois in 1988. Today, it serves as a museum for history buffs and a mecca for people going through their own personal struggles.
“For a lot of people, they deem it a pilgrimage,” said Sally A. Corbett-Turco, executive director of Stepping Stones. “I’ve seen everything here from people driving up and walking in and falling to their knees. I’ve seen people pray.”
Visitors to the National Historic Landmark, a designation the home received in October 2012, are overwhelmed with historical displays revealing everything there is to know about the Wilsons, including letters in which Bill shares details of his first drink.
In the 1917 letter, written while Bill was in military training in Massachusetts, he told his wife, “I’m trying to figure out this drinking business. I’m sure we’re going to run against it a big deal. What do you think, dear? Should we be teetotalers or shouldn’t we?”
It wasn’t long after Bill had his first drink that he was hooked, letters reveal.
“Lois was a collector and we’re thankful for it,” Corbett-Turco said, “because she documented, she chronicled and she kept stuff. Her diaries are like gold to us, as historians.”
In 1951, despite the success of Alcoholics Anonymous, the Wilsons were still struggling to make ends meet, having lived in dozens of places in the years prior. Their supporters heard about their predicament and returned the favor. Hellen Griffith, the widow of an alcoholic and the friend of an AA member, offered to sell her Katonah home to Bill and Lois at a reduced rate.
Today, the property is managed by Stepping Stones, which was established in 1979 by Lois, then 88 years old, as a privately run foundation that is wholly separate from Alcoholics Anonymous.
“She was the first president of the foundation with an eye toward making sure the property remained available for generations to come after she passed,” Corbett-Turco said.
Lois also founded Al-Anon Family Groups in 1951, 16 years after the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. The purpose of Al-Anon is to help relatives and friends of alcoholics.
Visitors begin their tour in the property’s garage, which has been repurposed as a welcome center. There, guests will learn about Bill and Lois’ relationship, their struggle with Bill’s alcoholism, and the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. Tours are typically about 2 hours long. Because Stepping Stones is located in a residential neighborhood, tours are limited by the town to 2,750 per year.
“People will often come if they’re really, really into reading a lot of the history,” Corbett-Turco said. “People who are not connected to maybe recovery or 12 Steps, they like to hear this amazing story of hope. He’s a guy who never imagined himself founding an anonymous worldwide fellowship. He thought he’d be a lawyer or a businessman. He turned his greatest deficit into a worldwide fellowship that’s helped millions and millions of people.”
The welcome center contains the first printed copy of “Alcoholics Anonymous,” the millionth of which was given by Bill to President Nixon. A photograph of that occasion hangs in the main house, which is the second part of the tour.
“It’s like walking into a time warp,” Corbett-Turco said of the home, which remains mostly untouched and contains furniture and other items from the 1800s and early 1900s. Bill and Lois opened their doors to many people struggling with alcoholism, she said.
A particularly important piece of furniture, which sits in the upstairs kitchen, is the table at which Bill and his friend, Ebby Thacher, had their life-changing conversation at the Wilsons’ Brooklyn apartment.
Described as “one alcoholic talking to another,” the foundation for Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 Steps was laid that night in November 1934.
“People get teary-eyed if they know that story about how Bill and Ebby sat there in the kitchen and Bill was desperate and Ebby was this light of hope for him,” Corbett-Turco said.
A month later, Bill left treatment for the fourth and final time. He remained sober for the final 37 years of his life.
In May 1935, he met the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Dr. Bob Smith, while on a business trip to Akron, Ohio. Struggling with sobriety, Bill sought out another alcoholic. Smith grudgingly agreed to a 15-minute meeting with Bill.
“They end up talking for hours,” Corbett-Turco said. “Dr. Bob feels like finally, someone understands him.”
After their meeting, Smith remained sober for a month, but relapsed in June. Soon after, on June 10, 1935, Smith had his final drink. That date, which is celebrated as the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, has been commemorated with a large picnic at Stepping Stones since 1951.
“The Big Book,” which contains the 12 Steps, was published four years later.
The final place guests visit is Wit’s End, a cottage on the edge of the property where Bill could be alone and write. Inside Wit’s End is the desk at which chapters of “Alcoholics Anonymous” were written. There, he also wrote “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions,” a 1953 book that explains the basic principles of Alcoholics Anonymous and their application.
After Bill’s death in 1971, Lois continued to manage the property until she died in 1988.
“She outlived him for 17 years and she lived with his drinking for 17 years,” Corbett-Turco said.
Lois especially had an interest in gardening, a tradition Stepping Stones continues to this day. An Eagle Scout planted birdhouses around the property as part of his service project, and Corbett-Turco said she is always seeking more volunteers, including those who would like to work in the garden.
“Anybody who has a green thumb, we can work with,” she said.
To make an appointment to visit Stepping Stones, visit steppingstones.org or call 914-232-4822.