REST, RECOVERY AT WILSON HOUSE Twelve-step pilgrims can sleep in the Vermont birthplace of AA’s founder

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EAST DORSET, Vt. - There are plenty of rustic inns in Vermont. There are even plenty of inns in Vermont that are on the National Register of Historic Places. But there's only one inn in Vermont where the founder of one of the 20th century's great social movements was born.

That inn is the Wilson House. Although many people will wonder "Wilson who?," many others will know it is Wilson as in Bill Wilson, the Wall Street analyst of the '20s and '30s whose legacy lies in human, not financial, investment. Bill Wilson cofounded Alcoholics Anonymous. Both "Bill W." and "Dr. Bob," the other cofounder, were born in the Green Mountain State.
 
Wilson's birthplace was built as a hotel in 1852, but Wilson didn't come along until November 1895, when he was born in "the room behind the bar," as he used to say. Nowadays, both the bar and the bedroom are gone, having been replaced by a two-part parlor; but it's not uncommon, when sitting there, to hear visitors come in and point toward the corner and whisper reverently, "that's where he was born." A lamp burns continuously to mark the spot.

Back then, the rambling homestead had 28 rooms, 15 of them bedrooms, but by 1986, it had fallen into disrepair. A recovering alcoholic who was passing through town recognized the building and inquired about buying it.

"Everything just fell into place," said Bonnie Lepper, who helps runs the house. "It was not up for sale at the time, but the owner had just decided to sell." So the alcoholic bought it and created a nonprofit foundation so no individual would ever own it again.

"He didn't have the money to repair it, but little by little, by donations and by people with skills, it was repaired, and it opened a year later with just a few rooms," Lepper said. Today, the red and white Greek Revival building has 13 single and double rooms, plus an efficiency apartment.

Overnight guests generally come from one of two categories: members of AA or some other recovery group (about 100 organizations use the 12 Steps devised for AA), and students of history. The house was placed in the historical register in 1995.

But anyone is welcome, and Wilson House is, after all, an old Vermont inn: The decor is country quaint, with period furnishings, lace curtains, and floors that slant just enough to suggest their age. Bonhomie abounds, not only among clientele but among the staff, many of whom are volunteers.

Some staffers work full time and others devote their vacations to life in the house; almost everyone who works there has some connection to 12-step life, either personally or via a family member. This notion of service contributes to a delicate serenity within Wilson's walls that is supplemented by the decision to keep guest- rooms free of electronic devices, even telephones.

The food offered in the small dining room is earthy, filling, and plentiful, and the cooks do their best to meet special needs. Meals are sometimes served in sittings to accommodate not only guests but the stream of folks who come for an afternoon or an evening.

Still, it is not really the food that draws people in. Two meeting places beyond the kitchen are home to regular meetings of local AA and Al-Anon groups: One room is small - it might have been the private dining room back in the day - and the other is more sprawling, lined in wood, and decorated in early license-plate. The room is dominated at one end by a huge stone fireplace that in wintertime is stoked from morning until night.

In addition to the regular meetings, both spaces are used for seminars, some led by visitors who travel the AA recovery circuit and others conducted among groups who gather from far-flung points to share in each other's continuing renewal. And it's not all business either: The room has hosted Super Bowl and New Year's parties.

There are a few points of interest outside the house as well. Across the churchyard is the Griffith House, where Wilson and his sister, Dorothy, grew up with their maternal grandparents after their parents divorced. It is maintained as the spare Vermont domicile it was, complete with garden and small farm, but it also is home to the Griffith Library, a respository of pre- and early-AA literature and memorabilia. The Griffith House, a part of the Wilson House Foundation, is open daily, but the library opens only on request.

"It's not a lending library, but we want it to be a hands-on library," Lepper said. "We don't want it to be something that's hidden away."

About 1 1/2 miles away are the graves of Wilson and his wife, Lois. The plots also have a stream of visitors, some of whom have trekked from the house and others who detoured just to pause at the graves. The site has evidence aplenty of pilgrimage; people leave trinkets, letters, and other offerings of both thanks and suffering.

The neighborhood has several other attractions of interest to pilgrims and tourists. Up the road and a short hike into the woods is Mad Tom Brook, whose swirling waters are cool and spellbinding, and just across the main road is the trail up wooded Mount Aeolus.

In Manchester, about 15 minutes away by car, visitors will find elements of small-town New England combined with that more modern rural outpost, the bustling manufacturers' outlet center, complete with Ralph L., Tommy H., and the rest of the gang.

IF YOU GO

The Wilson House is at 378 Village St., East Dorset, Vt. From Boston, take Route 2 west to Interstate 91 North, Exit 2, and follow signs to Route 30. Take Route 30 north to Route 7 north. After about 5 miles, turn right onto Mad Tom Road, opposite the East Dorset Store. The inn is on the right. Rates range from $55 to $120 a night, and average about $85. Rates for stays longer than three days are reduced. Meal plans are available.

Reserve early during peak travel times, Bonnie Lepper of the Wilson House advises, because rooms tend to fill up on holidays and during the summer and fall. "We have people who make arrangements a year in advance," she said.

The Griffith House is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.