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At East Dorset Birthplace Of AA's Founder, Alcoholics In Recovery Volunteer Their Time

Don, from Greenfield, Mass. sands a countertop at The Wilson House in East Dorset.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Don, from Greenfield, Mass. sands a countertop at The Wilson House in East Dorset.

During the first weekend in June the Wilson House in East Dorset will hold a 30th anniversary celebration to recognize the renovations to the birthplace and childhood home of Bill Wilson, one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous.In the 1980s recovering alcoholics from all over the region volunteered to renovate the home and help turn it into an inn, and the Wilson House is still a draw and a place for people in recovery to find peace and volunteer their time.

People enrolled in AA only use their first name when speaking in public.

Don from Greenfield, Massachusetts was in East Dorset recently doing some work in the kitchen. Don says he’s been coming up here to the Wilson House for about 12 years.

When Don was working full-time he was a carpenter. And as he’s been easing into retirement he says he’s spending more time up here in southwestern Vermont, just north of Manchester.

For three months last year he painted and did electrical and plumbing work, and anything else that was needed to maintain a 166-year-old building.

“It’s a way for me to give back what was so freely given to me, which was sobriety,” Don said, as he takes a break from sanding a countertop. “I can do what I like to do, and at the same time I’m helping out people that are trying to get sober. And, you know, there are whole different ways to do that, and this is the way that seems to work best for me.”

Bill Wilson was born right here, in what used to be a hotel. He spent a lot of his childhood in East Dorset, and he’s buried about a mile up the road.

The hotel was built after the railroad came through, to serve workers who were pulling marble out of the nearby Dorset quarry.

But by the mid-20th century the quarry was largely shut down and the hotel was abandoned.

In 1987 Ozzie Lepper, who was enrolled in AA in Connecticut, bought the dilapidated building.

"It's a way for me to give back what was so freely given to me, which was sobriety." — Don from Greenfield, Massachusetts, a volunteer at The Wilson House

Wilson House executive director Berta Maginniss says Lepper wanted to create a place of solace for people in recovery. The next year people enrolled in AA helped bring the structure back to life.

“He did it with volunteers,” Maginniss said. “ Volunteers from other people in the program, who would come up, give a couple of weeks and do whatever. If they were craftsmen they could really be counted on for infrastructure and if it was just someone else they would do was painting and wallpapering.”

The Wilson House today is 12-room inn.

It holds AA meetings six nights a week, a Friday night supper and conferences and seminars year-round.

Maginniss says she’s got a list of 50 or 60 people who come up throughout the year.

They do dishes, or clean the bathrooms, or do serious structural work and carpentry.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Scotty, from Stamford, Conn. talks with Wilson House executive director Berta Maginniss about a painting project he will be working on. Maginniss says she has a list of 50 or 60 people who volunteer at the inn.

Scotty, from Stamford, Connecticut, comes up here three or four times a year. He spent about a month here this winter and he was just arriving on a recent warm day in May.

 “It’s a very spiritual place for me,” he said. “It’s a place of peace and quiet, out of the craziness of the world. They say you can’t keep it unless you give it away. So I come to places like this and just get a little peace and serenity.“

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Bill Wilson, a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was born in a former hotel in East Dorset, and the boyhood home where he grew up is right next door.

Gary lives outside Detroit, Michigan. He was also out front, settling in with a chocolate creemee.

This is his eighth visit to the Wilson House and he says he’ll volunteer around the inn while he’s here.

Gary says East Dorset is very different from Detroit. He works a lot there, he says, and here he can slow down and breathe.

“I texted my sister yesterday a picture of the sign here with the marker here of 'The Wilson House,” Gary said. “And I basically said, 'you know, I feel like I’m home again.'”


Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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