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Stepping Stones
by Nancy O.

Stepping Stones is in Bedford Hills, NY. Bill and Lois lived there the last half of their life together, moving to this house on April 11, 1941. It is now a trust foundation, preserving the history, artifacts and papers of Bill and Lois.

Since Lois's father's death in 1936, Lois and Bill had been paying the mortgage company a small rental to stay on in the house on Clinton Street in Brooklyn. During the Great Depression, people were rarely forced from their homes, but in 1939, as the Depression eased, more money became available, and the mortgage company was able to sell the house.

On Wednesday, April 26, 1939, Lois and Bill had to leave the house that had been the Burnham family home for half a century. It was necessary not only to pack up their own belongings, but also those accumulated by her parents from 1888 on. They gave carloads of items to the Salvation Army and Goodwill Industries, and put some of their furniture into storage, including Lois's fine Mason and Hamlin grand piano which Bill had bought for $1,600 when they had lived in a luxurious apartment at 38 Livingston Street in Brooklyn.

What a sad day it must have been. They now had no home and no income. Lois's diary entry for that day says only: Left 182 for good. Went to Parkhursts.

For the next two years they lived like vagabonds in about 50 different places, most of them homes of AA members. Someone once asked Bill how they had got through the next two years. Bill explained, probably with an ironic grin, that they were invited out to dinner a lot. When they finally found their new home they were living in a small room in the 24th Street Clubhouse.

In January of 1941 they were staying with friends in Chappaqua, New York. Lois wrote in her diary on January 4 that they had driven to Bedford Hills to see the house. They broke in through an unlocked window. They drove up again the next day to have another look.

This house was owned by a Mrs. Griffith (no relation to Bill), a rich philanthropist whose husband had died an active alcoholic, and whose best friend had found sobriety in an AA group in New Jersey. She clearly wanted the Wilsons to have this house and offered it to them for only $6,500, no money down, with mortgage payments of $40 a month. Since they would save the $20 a month storage bill, it became possible for them to get this house.

The Wilsons originally named their new home Bil-Los's Break, but because they had to use a shortcut of rugged stone steps down the steep hill to get to their garage, they changed the name to Stepping Stones. This also implied a connection with the Twelve Steps.

The house is a small, seven room, Dutch Colonial structure of dark brown shingles with gables sunk into a steep gambrel roof.

Bill and Lois both had to put a lot of work into it to make it comfortable. Ceilings had to be painted, floors had to be scraped and stained. But they were up to the challenge. Lois had many domestic talents. She used a few remnants and seconds she had picked up at sales to make valances and decorative shades for the windows, and taught herself to reupholster furniture.

Built as a summer house, Bill had to find a way to heat it. He found a coal furnace on the sidewalk in front of a local saloon. The owner was throwing it out, but when Bill expressed interest in it, it suddenly was for sale. Bill paid $20 for it, but it never worked well. Eventually they acquired storm windows and insulation, and an oil burner to replace the coal furnace.

The ground floor consists of a large living room with a cavernous stone fireplace, which reminded Bill of the one at Wilson House, the small hotel where he was born. There are also three small bedrooms and a kitchen on this floor.

One of these bedrooms soon became the Spook Room. Bill had a strong interest in the paranormal. In this room they held sťances and practiced with a ouija board. Sometimes Bill himself would lie on the couch in the living room, and act as a medium receiving messages, which Anne B., a neighbor and part of the spook circle would write on a pad.

Another of the bedrooms was used by Nell Wing, Bill's long-time secretary who became like a daughter to Bill and Lois.

Dr. Bob and Anne Smith, visited every year. While at Stepping Stones, they participated in the sťances.

Father Ed Dowling visited them for their first New Year's celebration in the house. He wrote them on January 6, 1941, thanking them for making that New Year's Day one of the happiest he ever spent. Later he wrote saying he often recalled the New Year he spent with them shortly after Pearl Harbor.

Others who stayed with them for short or long visits were: Glady S. from Madras, India, in her sari; Bill's half-sister Helen; and, of course, Ebby Thatcher. Toward the end of her life Bill persuaded his mother to come live with them.

Marty Mann remained a close friend and visited often. It was here she came to explain to Bill her plan to start what became the National Council on Alcoholism.

On the second floor is the master bedroom and a long, broad gallery lined with books, photographs and much AA memorabilia. I noticed pictures of many early AAs and AA friends on the wall: Dr. Bob and Ann Smith, Marty Mann, Bobbie Burger, Dr. Jack Norris, Dr. Silkworth, etc. There was even a picture of Richard Nixon, with Dr. Norris presenting him with the one-millionth copy of the Big Book. This presentation was arranged by my friend Tom Pike, a close friend of Nixon's. After Bill's death Lois had numbers placed on all the pictures and there is a list identifying the persons in each picture.

Apparently either Lois or Bill had an interest in dinosaurs, as there is a collection of them in this room.

The famous letter to Bill from Dr. Jung dated January 30, 1961, is framed and on the wall

In this upstairs library there is also the desk where Lois and her close friend, Anne B., the wife of an alcoholic and a Westchester neighbor, sent letters in May 1951 to eighty-seven AA Auxiliaries and Family Groups, suggesting the formation of a national organization of the families of alcoholics. Forty-eight groups responded. Anne and Lois wrote Purposes and Suggestions for All-Anon Family Groups here. On the desk is a three tiered file box, decorated with the mottos: First things First; Easy Does It; and Live and Let Live. Anne, who is considered Al-Anon's co-founder, died in 1984 at the age of eighty-four.

Today the house also contains a small elevator. It was explained to me that they did not want to go to nursing homes, so Lois arranged for the elevator to make it easier to remain at home as they grew older.

Up a hill in the woods is a small cement-block building which Bill and a friend built for him to use as a study. Bill named it Wits End.

Here he installed the desk, studio couch, and chairs he had purchased from Hank Parkhurst. They had been in the office at Honor Dealers in New Jersey where Bill worked with Hank, and where he dictated the first draft of the Big Book. Bill did much of his writing at Wits End.

Wits End had no plumbing and no telephone, but a chemical toilet was later installed, and an army field telephone allowed him to communicate with the main house. Wits End also had a fireplace, a kerosene stove, and a lot of windows.

Normally you have to call to arrange to see Stepping Stones, but my companion on the trip is a volunteer tour guide there. He had the keys and took me in.

I was delighted with this private tour and took the opportunity to use Bill's toilet (dang, no picture!), sit at Lois's dressing table, and on Bill's bed, and even play Lois's piano. What a thrill.

But the greatest thrill was to sit at the table in the kitchen, which is the same table at which Bill and Ebby sat during Ebby's visit to Bill in 1935.

The Wilsons, Bill died January 24, 1971, the day of their 53rd wedding anniversary, and Lois died October 5, 1988 at the age of 97.

Even Lois, because she was not an AA member, could not leave her money to AA, so she channeled some of it to the Stepping Stones Foundation. The Foundation's Mission Statement reads: To contribute to the knowledge and understanding of the disease of alcoholism and its effect on family and society and to preserve Stepping Stones, the home of Lois and Bill Wilson, and its historic archives for Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon members and those interested in alcoholism education and research.

SOURCES:
"Getting Better Inside Alcoholics Anonymous" by Nan Robertson, "Lois Remembers" by Lois Wilson, "Pass It On", "Bill W." by Francis Hartigan, "The Soul of Sponsorship: the Friendship of Fr. Ed Dowling, S.J., and Bill Wilson" by Robert Fitzgerald.


Index of AA History Pages on Barefoot's Domain


As in so many things, especially with we alcoholics, our History is our Greatest Asset!.. We each arrived at the doors of AA with an intensive and lengthy "History of Things That Do Not Work" .. Today, In AA and In Recovery, Our History has added an intensive and lengthy "History of Things That DO Work!!" and We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it!!

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