Originally published in the Manchester Journal on May 4, 2018.
EAST DORSET — Welcoming more than 10,000 guests to town each year, the Wilson House — now approaching its 30th anniversary — embodies the efforts of two men united by a common mission: to support those struggling with addiction on the road to recovery.
For many traveling that road, the name Bill Wilson is one of monumental significance. As the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous alongside fellow Vermonter Dr. Robert Smith, Wilson is credited with transforming an immeasurable number of lives through the 12-step program that is used across the world.
Today, thousands flock to the East Dorset landmark to honor Wilson’s memory and participate in seminars and meetings on recovery. More than 50 educational programs take place at the house annually, as well as events and programming for the larger Dorset comm-unity.
“The house was founded in its current formation as a nonprofit inn and seminar center, because it holds such a special — even spiritual — significance for those who are in the program,” said Director of Development Lindsey Harty. “Recovery touches most people’s lives, so I think that many find some sort of connection with the work that we do here.”
That work wouldn’t have been possible, however, if not for the efforts of Albert “Ozzie” Lepper, who serendipitously purchased the dilapidated property in the late 1980s and restored the house as a monument to Wilson.
“For the past 30 years the Wilson House has been a place for people in recovery, as well as their families, to visit, stay and enjoy seminars,” said board member Shawn Harrington, curator of the Manchester Historical Society. “Thousands of people flock to East Dorset from all over the world, which is really amazing.”
Built in 1852, the house historically served as a hotel — designed to capitalize off of the newly installed Western Vermont Railroad carrying marble out of the many quarries operating in Dorset at the time.
Wilson was born in the house in 1895 behind what would ironically become the hotel bar, and returned to his hometown frequently until his death in 1971.
“The hotel primarily served people in the marble industry, and it went into the Wilson family in the 1880’s,” said Executive Director Berta Maginniss. “Bill often came back to the house, and to the nearby Griffith Library building which was his grandmother’s home.”
By the late 1980s the house had fallen into disrepair, and few realized the property’s connection to Wilson and Alcoholics Anonymous. Lepper was not among them, however, and was surprised to recognize the establishment from a photo he had seen years before.
Lepper, who had utilized Wilson’s 12 step program in his own recovery, had not intended to seek out the legacy of Bill Wilson that day. Rather, he had taken a detour into East Dorset in search of directions — which he received at the post office sitting just across the street from Wilson’s former home.
“He asked about the house, and it was at that moment that the owner’s son was walking past the post office,” said Bonnie Burke, who would later marry Lepper and play a vital role in the growth of The Wilson House. “He found out that the house was for sale, and within a very short amount of time — I think only a day — he had purchased it with money that had been left to him in a will.”
Starting in 1987 Lepper worked fastidiously to restore the house, intending to re-open it as a tribute to Wilson’s life and legacy. But with sections of the building requiring extensive structural and cosmetic repairs, as well as a new foundation, the process soon proved onerous.
“It was like a whole new lifestyle, and there he was with a building that was falling apart and needed repairs very badly,” Burke explained. “I’ve heard it said that if Ozzie had found the house a few years later it may have been too late.”
“The house was essentially condemned, but Ozzie and Bonnie brought it back to life,” said Harrington. “There was a tree growing up through the kitchen floor, the meeting house floor had collapsed, and all of the rooms seemed to have chunks of plaster missing from the ceiling or wall.”
Despite the considerable damage, Lepper coordinated a sweeping repair effort that allowed the house to reopen in 1988 — once again under the “Wilson House” moniker.
“You can tell by all of the things that you read about him that he was a very big personality, and he marshaled all of the resources and volunteers to help,” said Maginniss. “People who were in the program were wrapped into the idea of restoring this house, and the purpose that it would ultimately serve.”
Lepper, and later Burke, appointed a board of directors for the house and registered the organization as a non-profit. In 1995, the pair oversaw the Wilson House’s addition to the National Register of Historic Places.
“It was slow, 24/7 work, but it was so worthwhile,” reflected Burke, who now operates the adjoining Griffith Library in Wilson’s memory. “You could see the gratitude from the people who came, and I think that’s what impacted me the most. Seeing that gratitude created gratitude in my own life, at a much higher level than I had ever anticipated.”
Today, the house continues to generate gratitude as a “living tribute” to Wilson. While the organization has worked to preserve as many artifacts from Wilson’s time as possible, guests are free to utilize and even stay overnight in the house to immerse themselves in its history.
“There are a lot of people who don’t realize that there’s a connection to AA history so close by; it’s really a regional destination,” said Harty. “Groups of guys will come by on their motorcycles, or people will drive up on a nice day to attend a Saturday evening meeting. People come from all over.”
“It’s kind of a hidden gem in the Northshire that thousands of people seek out,” Harrington added. “Any time there’s a big event in Manchester, there’s always an influx of people coming to the Wilson house to see where Bill Wilson was born.”
Each June observers of “Bill W. Day” congregate at Wilson’s East Dorset gravesite in a ceremony coordinated by local AA chapters, often leaving “sobriety chips” from the 12 step program — used to signify how long an individual has been sober — atop Wilson’s headstone.
“He literally saved their lives,” Harty said. “And there is so much gratitute around that.”
This year, however, that observance will be augmented by a weekend of events organized to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Wilson House. That celebration will begin with a June 1 golf tournament at the Ekwanok Country Club, where Wilson and his wife Lois are known to have “contracted golf fever.” The house itself will then host a celebratory barbeque on June 2, followed by a screening of the documentary “Bill W.” — featuring a live discussion with director Kevin Hanlon — at the Manchester Community Library that evening.
“The thirtieth is a big anniversary,” notes Burke. “It’s a great opportunity to learn more about Bill Wilson and the history of this great man, but also to see what’s been done to this house that probably would have been torn down in the little town of East Dorset.”
“What’s taken place in the last 30 years has been remarkable, really,” said Maginniss. “The house should be appreciated for how far it’s come and where it’s going; in our communities, recovery is a really important topic.”
And in the next 30 years? Simply sustaining the non-profit organization, and continuing the mission shared by both Wilson and Lepper, will be the top priority for The Wilson House.
“We want to make sure that the house is there for the next generation, and raise awareness about the work that’s done there,” Harrington explained. “All of the 12 step programs that exist today sprang from the man that was born in that house. There’s debate about success rates, but no matter what side you take the program has worked for millions of people.”
“Ozzie’s hope was that people would come to the house to give thanks for their new lives, and that’s exactly what happened,” Burke said. “It continues to happen today.”
For more information on the Wilson House, it’s history, and the 30th Anniversary Celebration visit http://www.wilsonhouse.org/.