Just an hour outside New York City, you can visit Stepping Stones, the home of AA founder Bill Wilson and his wife Lois, founder of Al-Anon.
“It’s not a good tour unless somebody cries,” my guide Levi jokes after showing our group of four around Stepping Stones, a historic house in Katonah, New York. There were damp eyes and moments of deep feeling as we spent a couple of hours in the former home of Bill and Lois Wilson, AA and Al-Anon co-founders, respectively. They lived at Stepping Stones from 1941 until their deaths, and the house is still full of meaningful relics from their life’s work.
A Twentieth-Century Love Story
I was happy that the tour focused very much on Bill and Lois as a couple rather than Bill as the great man and Lois as the helpmate. Although she certainly was that and more.
Levi told us about the romance between Lois (born 1891), a rich girl from Brooklyn Heights, and Bill (born 1895), a poor boy from Vermont. Her family summered at Emerald Lake, Vermont, near East Dorset, Bill’s hometown. They knew each other as kids. Lois paid Bill little mind at first since he was four years younger. But when he was sixteen and she was twenty, he set out to impress her by building a boat and sailing it on the lake. Unfortunately, he didn’t know what he was doing, so the boat capsized. Nor did he know how to swim. It would be the first of many times that Lois, an excellent swimmer, saved Bill’s ass.
But he succeeded in getting her attention. They married in 1918. At that time, Bill had never had a drink. But during a stint in France during World War I, he returned with a taste for alcohol.
Boom and Bust
Bill was always a visionary with big ideas. He started a career on Wall Street after returning home from the war. As part of his work doing property valuations, he and Lois cruised all around the east on a ’21 Harley. Lois drove while Bill rode in the sidecar, evaluating real estate.
On tour, Levi tells us, “Bill invented the job of stock analyst.”
We got the chance to play Bill’s piano, the last relic he held onto from his prosperous Wall Street days before the 1929 crash.
By the time the Great Depression hit, Bill’s drinking had got way out of hand. He and Lois ended up moving into her family home. Her relatives had all moved out or died. Lois got a job as a clerk while Bill sat around drinking. Pretty soon, the bank foreclosed on the house. But it was hard to evict so many people during the Depression, so they didn’t find themselves out on the sidewalk until 1938.
Meanwhile, Bill had a spiritual awakening and got sober. He found a new job and, during a business trip to Akron, Ohio, met Dr. Bob Smith. The two men founded Alcoholics Anonymous. They both devoted themselves to developing this new program and helping as many drunks as possible.
Founding AA was an incredible thing. But it didn’t keep Lois from despairing as they lived in 51 places in two years. At a Manhattan AA meeting, people would pass a hat for what was jokingly called the “Lois Wilson Home Relief Fund,” Levi tells us. She once famously broke down on the stairway in Grand Central Station, howling, “Will I ever have a home again?”
Moving to Stepping Stones
In keeping with the spiritual nature of AA, help came unexpectedly. A woman at a meeting told them about an unused hunting lodge in spendy Westchester County. Bill and Lois thanked her politely, then laughed in private. Like they could afford that! However, she persisted and made terms they could afford—forty dollars per month, zero interest, for a total cost of $6500. In April 1941, they moved into the house on the one-acre property.
Visiting Stepping Stones
Nowadays the historic property is a full eight acres, including the big farmhouse, an admin building/visitor’s center, and Bill’s writing studio. There is a lot of land and a big stone wall that dates back 300 years. The wall wasn’t to keep anything in or out, Levi tells us, but was a place to pile rocks to clear farmland in notoriously rocky Westchester County.
I visited on a snowy day in January. When I arrived, a six-person Spanish language tour had just started, led by a bilingual staff member. People come from around the world to visit Stepping Stones, especially from Mexico, Canada, Central and South America, the UK, and Australia. The house attained National Historic Landmark status in 2012.
Stepping Stones is kept like it was when the Wilsons lived in it. Levi likened it to your grandmother’s house. “It’s full,” he said. Guests aren’t allowed to touch anything or to take photos except at three designated spots.
As we walked from room to room in the old house, it was impossible to take in all the knickknacks. We saw the couch where Bill did most of his thinking and the old typewriter on which Nell, long-time secretary and AA’s first archivist, typed all sorts of early AA documents and correspondence.
The first photo opp was in the kitchen where we could sit at the table where an old friend encouraged Bill to try to get sober one more time—the time that held. On the stove behind the table stood what is allegedly the original coffee pot used at AA meetings.
Lois outlived Bill by about 16 years, so her influence is very strong in the house. My favorite part of the home was her upstairs lair, a kind of hall that runs the length of the house and holds her desk, seating areas, and tons of memorabilia from her life. She knew the house would be preserved as a historic place, so she numbered and captioned all the photos and knickknacks on display. Levi told us that some captions have proved inaccurate, but they would never alter Lois’ original words.
The Spook Room was also interesting. This is where they held seances. A poltergeist was active here—the Wilsons used to bicker, accusing each other of moving objects until they realized the spectral cause. This is also where the original of the famous “Came to Believe” painting by Bill Dotson is housed. The widely reproduced painting shows Bill Wilson and Bob Smith carrying the AA message to a dejected, skinny man sitting on an iron-framed hospital bed.
Bill’s Desk in His Writing Studio
Probably the most memorable part of the tour for me was being inside Bill Wilson’s writing studio. He built it himself, up the hill from the house, to have a little privacy. Inside was a narrow bed for napping and his huge desk, where he wrote Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, As Bill Sees It, and other AA classics. Our last photo opp was sitting at that desk. I imagined him sitting there in his older age, pondering his good fortune in meeting Lois, in turning his life around, and in helping millions of people improve theirs.
On his desk, in a little frame, it says, “My workshop stands on a hill in back of our home. Looking over the valley, I see the village community where our local group meets. Beyond the circle of my horizon lies the one world of AA.”
The Gift Shop
Like all good museums, Stepping Stones has a gift shop. Inside the reception building, you can buy books, postcards, t-shirts, and DVDs. You can also get a piece of Swedish ivy from an original plant grown by Lois. It was nicknamed “the pass-it-along plant” because Lois used to give cuttings to people to pass it along. Which is also what people do with the AA message. The gift shop shares space with the reception area and has informative displays about the lives of the Wilsons.
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When You Visit Stepping Stones
It was easy to get to Stepping Stones from New York City, even for someone who doesn’t know the trains. I took the 7 Harlem from Grand Central Station and got off at the Bedford Hills station, about an hour away. From there, it was an easy one-mile walk up the hill to Stepping Stones. I used GPS to navigate there. The neighborhood is very quiet and upscale. The Stepping Stones website includes detailed instructions about where to park, the maximum length of vehicles allowed, and rules against loitering outside the property. Because this is a residential neighborhood, visitors should respect area homeowners.