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A History of AA in Minnesota

It is said November 11 marks the founding of AA in Minnesota when, in 1940, a fellow from Chicago responded to a Minneapolis fellow's letter for help. In celebration of Founders' Day, some history of AA in Minnesota...
Alf's Talk at Downtown St. Paul AA Club Room & Picnic, July 26 & 27, 1996

Good Evening: My name is Alf, and I am an alcoholic. My middle name is Albert. The first initial of each of these names makes AA, so I know I'm in the right place at the right time in my life. I'm holding up a picture showing me in my other identity as Alf when I appeared in a TV sitcom. You perhaps did not know that all alcoholics are from outer space. I came from the planet Melmac. While we are on earth as alcoholics we hurt people, damage a lot of property, and often die from this illness. However, if we find AA and live a life of sobriety, we become lovable people, just like the little Alf you saw on TV.

In our AA magazine called the Grapevine, I found a little story which illustrates the fear we live in when we sober up and see the damage we have done. A drunk arrived in SanFrancisco; went to the first bar he found; got plastered; poured himself into bed in a hotel room; during the night there was a huge earthquake, but the drunk slept right through it. In the morning he staggered to the window; looked out and cried: "My God, how am I ever going to pay for all of this?

My talk tonight centers around the history of AA in Minnesota. For that reason, I am using notes which I have seldom done before for an AA talk. One consolation for you in the audience is that you have my guarantee that it will only last for a little over twenty minutes. I speak tonight as an individual member of Alcoholics Anonymous, not as a spokesperson for AA. All opinions that I express are my own. This is an open meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, so for just a moment I would like to give you my understanding of what alcoholism is: I believe that Alcoholism is a complex illness of the entire psyche--body, mind and soul. Years ago Dr. Silkworth, great friend of early AA, defined it as an allergy of the body and a compulsion of the mind.

In my own case, alcohol gave me tremendous rewards at first, but then it turned on me forever. Alcoholism can be arrested but never cured. I can never go back and recover any of the early rewards I felt were there. If I take one drink, I need it. It is a central part of what I am. I am a lover of alcohol Words from a book titled "Drinking, A Love Story" express it better than 1. I quote: "Yes, this is a love story. Its about passion, sensual pleasure, deep pulls, lust, fears, yearning hungers. Its about needs so strong they're crippling. Its about saying good bye to something you can not live without. I loved the way drink made me feel, and I loved its special power of deflection, its ability to shift my focus away from my own awareness of self and onto something else, something less painful than my own feeling. I loved the sounds of drink, the distinct glug-glug of booze pouring into a glass". End of quote.

Yes, I too was a lover of alcohol. From my first drink of alcohol as a young boy, I loved the way it made me feel. As I grew older, I loved the dancing, the singing at piano bars, the delicious, warm, glowing feeling melting away painful stress, the wonderful conversations I held at bars showing me better than all others. Yes, I was a lover of all that. My obsession was trying to recapture it and always winding up as a complete failure in darkness and tragedy.

There came a time when I could not get drunk and I could not get sober. That, for an alcoholic is the end of the road, a truly horrible pace to be. Thank God I can arrest this illness by asking my Higher Power every morning to remove from me the desire to take the first drink and trying to do what the 12 Steps of AA tell me to do, one day at a time.

Tonight I have been asked to talk about the early days of AA in Minnesota I can do that because I am now an old man. I was born on July 13, 1915, so a couple of weeks ago I completed 81 years of living on this planet. Gratitude floods my being when I realizes that the message of AA was to be brought into the world not too many years after my birth, and the life of the Fellowship runs parallel to my own. For a little while, I'll try to share some of my experience within the Fellowship.

I begin with 1934. Bill Wilson was in the hospital in NY, and in Akron, Ohio, Bob Smith was still getting drunk even though he was attending Oxford Group meetings. In 1934 I was a student at St. Olaf College located not far from where we are meeting tonight, and I also was attending Oxford Group Meetings and getting drunk. I was getting top grades, but I was already deep into my alcoholism, knowing that something was wrong, and looking for a way to control my behavior while using alcohol! That is impossible for an alcoholic to do on his own, but I of course did not know that .

The Oxford Group Movement began several years before when Dr. Frank Buchman, a Lutheran pastor, had what we speak of as a sudden spiritual experience while at a retreat being held at Keswick, England. Following that experience, he conceived the idea of holding small group meetings and getting back to primitive Christianity. He brought his message to colleges, one being Oxford, and small groups began to form, not only among students, but business men, churches, mission meetings, and various other diverse groups. Starting at Princeton University, it spread rapidly over the entire United States. St. Olaf College, founded by Lutheran immigrants, held meeting every week. The emphasis was on confidence in another person, conviction of sin, confession, conversion, and continuance by making restitution to those wronged and sharing the experience with another person.

It did not work for most of us alcoholics until the magic of one alcoholic sharing that message with another alcoholic came into being. Roland H found sobriety in 1933 after Dr. Jung informed him that only after a complete psychic change following a spiritual experience had any alcoholic achieved sobriety in the past. The magic happened for Roland within the Oxford movement after he shared it with Ebby T. who carried it to Bill Wilson and shared it with him. As I stated before, up until 1935, Dr. Robert Smith stayed drunk within the movement until Bill shared it with him.

As an example of the missing ingredient and rejection by alcoholics of the concepts within the Oxford meetings, Pat Cronin, first AA in Minnesota once told me his experience with the Oxford Group. He was living on skid row, pawned something to get a suit of clothes he needed to attend, what he called, a high class Oxford Group meeting of business men at the Curtis Hotel. Some of you may remember the Curtis Hotel in Minneapolis, no longer there today. It was a beautiful hotel, and Genevieve and I spent the first night of our marriage there about 55 years ago. I had roses and a magnum of the best champaign money could buy on the bureau of our room. Guess who drank almost all of the champaign! Well, Pat went to the meeting at the Curtis; rejected all the talks of sin and conversion; brought the suit back to the pawn shop; got a little money back; bought some cheap wine; got drunk! The magic of one alcoholic telling how it was, what happened, and how it is today was not present.

My marriage to Genevieve occurred in 1942, and the darkness of alcoholism enveloping me became horrible. I remember reading Jack Alexander's article on early AA experience which appeared that year and secretly hoping that some day soon it might reach me. I also remember that in 1941 Cedric Adams, Minneapolis radio and news personality, wrote in his column that AA in Minnesota was one year old . It had arrived in Minnesota in 1940 when Chan F. from Chicago brought the message to and shared it with Pat C. during that horrible Armistice Day blizzard. Chan and another AA came to Minneapolis to attend a Minnesota Gopher football game. I was at that same football game, drunk, but I remember Minnesota won-6 to 0. Some months earlier, Chan had received a letter from Bill Wilson typed by his secretary, Ruth Hock. A month or so earlier, Pat had gone into the Minneapolis library to stay warm, found the book "Alcoholics Anonymous" which was published in 1939; wrote a letter to NY asking for help. The letter Chan received asked him to call on Pat if he ever was in Minneapolis. In my minds eye I can visualize Pat freezing in that little room on Skid row, shaking while eying the last inch of Old Grand Dad whiskey left in his bottle! Only an alcoholic can understand the desperation of that feeling.

Then the magic happened again. Chan talked to Pat, and because Pat stayed sober from that point on, the good news was brought to me in 1944. My father and a friend, neither of them alcoholic, contacted Cedric Adams and Pat C. Pat contacted two members with only a few months of sobriety and they drove a great distance to call on me. Their message to me was that if I were alcoholic, as they were. I was at an "either-or" place in my life. Either I continued to drink alcohol, and if I did there would be tragedy in my life, or I could drive about 200 miles once a week to a home in Mankato where they were going to have AA meetings. There I would be introduced to a way of life where I would not have to drink alcohol, and I would escape the tragedy lying in store for me if I continued drinking. I rejected the invitation, and the horrible events most practicing alcoholics experience enveloped my life.

For the next seven years, darkness surrounded me. On September 1, 1951, I experienced what I call a miracle in my life. I returned home about 4 AM from a several day drunk and blackout. At 4:30 AM I called out to an Unseen Power asking for help, a cry from the core of my being. At 7 AM I made a telephone call to a member of the clergy .I was not a member of his church, but I knew he was from Ireland and a good drinker! A year later I became his sponsor! I asked to see him, and at 9 AM I drove to meet him at the rectory. He told me that only about a minute after he received my call, the telephone rang again. A clergy person from miles away was calling to tell him that a man with about a year of sobriety in another state had just moved to Windom near where I lived. There were no AA groups within a two county area there, and this man desperately needed another drunk to talk to. My friend, the priest, gave me his telephone number, and at 8 PM I went to see him. He said that all we needed was two people and God to have a group. He had no car, so I should come and get him on Monday night, September 6, 1951, when the two of us would have an AA meeting at my home.

We met that Monday evening; he and I in the living room and the two wives in the kitchen. The group is still in existence 45 years later, still "passing it on".

One more memory comes to my mind about Pat C., first AA inMinnesota, and it has to do with his first contact with our Fellowship. Our "Big Book" typed by Bill's first secretary, Ruth Hock, came out in 1939, and the Minneapolis Public Library had a copy. On a cold day, Pat entered the library to stay warm. Using his sister's library card, he found a copy of the book and read all of it. He wrote a letter to Box 459, still our Box number, in NY. Bill Wilson sent a letter, typed by Ruth, to Chan F. in Chicago, and I have related how Chan came to Minneapolis and called on Pat.

In November of 1951, the three members of the group meeting in my home came up with the idea of starting what we called an Intergroup where the few groups in northwest lowa and southern Minnesota could meet once a month, have a speaker, and get to know each other. Our three members even put out a little magazine called "Today" to be distributed at these monthly meetings.

At one of the first meetings in Windom, I asked Pat C. to speak, and I surprised him before he got up to speak. Our new AA symbol was to consist of a triangle within a circle. The thought hit me that Pat's letter from Minneapolis to NY; Bill's letter to Chicago; and Chan's trip to Pat in Minneapolis really made a triangle. I asked Bill Wilson if we could get a copy of the letters involved, and he sent them to me. At the meeting I presented them to Pat as part of my introduction of him to the members attending. Today those letters are in the archives.

Early in 1952 the Center of Continuation Study at the University of Minnesota put on a seminar for social workers and clergy. The main speakers were Sheldon Bacon, head of the new school of studies on alcoholism, and "Lefty Henderson", an attorney who found sobriety in AA and was now at Yale and the Director of a treatment center in Connecticut. I and a few other AA members were invited to attend including, Pat C. of Minneapolis and Pat B. of St. Paul. During a break from the talks, Pat B. told me he had been appointed the first Commissioner on Alcoholism for the State of Minnesota and that the State had appropriated $7,500 to be used over a two year period for education on alcoholism of social workers, clergy, and attorneys. We decided to spend some of it by holding seminars at four locations in the state. Clergy, social workers, medical doctors, and lawyers would be invited.

Four of us traveled around the State and conducted the seminars patterned after the one held at the University: Pat B., Dan Anderson, a District Judge, and I. Pat would introduce himself, not as an alcoholic, but as the new State Commissioner on Alcoholism, Dan Anderson, a psychologist on the staff at Willmar Hospital and friend of AA, would then lecture on alcoholism from the point of view of the psychologist,. Next the District Judge, a member but not identified as such, would speak on the subject from the lawspoint of view, and, as the last speaker, I would be introduced as Mr X, the alcoholic, telling the clergy and social workers how it was, and how different it was after Alcoholics Anonymous entered my life.

After the seminar we would tape it for use on local radio stations. The judge had a story that at informal meetings of lawyers and judges, one solution suggested was this: The drunk appears before the judge on a drinking related charge. He is let off easy after a fatherly lecture. Right away, he is back before the judge again. This time, he goes to jail. He gets out and does it again--over and over. So, why not have the county appropriate money to have a separate drunk tank built only for drunks. Have a barrel of whiskey with a spigot placed on it in the middle of cell. Give each drunk a tin cup and let them drink themselves to death. I did not think it very funny. We do a good job of allowing alcohol to kill us without any help from the county!

1951 was a banner year for Alcoholics Anonymous. Two events, one in Minnesota and one in St. Louis, had implications for our entire movement. Let me begin with the one in Minnesota.

Dr. Bradley. a psychiatrist from Canada, became Superintendent of the State Hospital at Willmar, opened the doors to the alcoholic ward, and introduced the program of AA as the primary therapy. Several times a month our little group from Windom would present AA meetings there. From that beginning, and the help of Dan Anderson, psychologist who moved from Willmar Hospital to become President of Hazelden, we have what has been called the Minnesota Model for the Treatment of Alcoholism.

Now let me describe the second event. Within the AA Fellowship, the year 1951 marked the beginning of an experimental five years of sending Delegates representing groups in the provinces of Canada and the States to a General Service Conference in NY. It was decided at a small meeting held at 2218 Ist Ave S. in Minneapolis that Pat C. would be the first Delegate in that experiment from Southern Minnesota. He was followed in Panel 3 by Bob T. of Mankato in (1953-54) and Ferris W. of St Paul (1955-56) in Panel 5, the final experimental period. Ferris moved to Arkansas in 1955, so the Alternate, Murray L. of St. Paul finished out his Panel of service for the year 1956. Northern Minnesota went through the same process. I remember helping draw the line across the state dividing the northern area from the southern. We first line placed St. Cloud in the southern section. Immediately we heard from AAs in the north that St. Cloud should be placed in the northern area, and we complied with that request.

During these years I served as Secretary for the small number of groups we had in Southern Minnesota, and in 1955, the only year the Delegates have met outside of NY, I, my wife Genevieve, and our three young children drove to St. Louis for the Second International Convention at Kiehl auditorium There with the Delegates seated on the stage, Bill Wilson on July 3 made his talk about all that had happened since 1935 and asked us to vote as to whether or not the General Service Conference should become permanent. The vote was taken, and, to me, it seemed as though it was unanimous that now guidance and direction of our Fellowship belonged to the members. God as expressed through our Group Conscience became the ultimate authority for our group purposes, working through the General Service process. I still get a warm feeling when I pass by old Kiehl Auditorium in St. Louis. There I met Father Dowling, Ebby Thatcher, Dr. Tiebault, Sam Shoemacker, Bill and Louis Wilson, Nell Wing and many others to whom we owe a great debt of gratitude. I was elected to serve as Delegate for Panel 7 (1957-58), the first elected from that Minnesota area after it became permanent. Our General Service Conference will last as long as God wills it. I hope this will be forever.

1957 found me at the Conference in NY. My name was chosen out of a hat to serve on the Committee of Conference and Charter. Our small committee held meetings in a hotel room, and Bill was always present. He would stretch out his long legs on the bed and talk about his Wall Street days, his spiritual experience, and his concern that even though AA might change in the future, the 12 Steps should not. An attorney, non alcoholic, named Bernard Smith, was a great help to our committee. He drew up a document for us which, after being presented on the floor for a vote, was accepted by the Delegates. This makes it almost impossible to change the 12 Steps.

Another thing we accomplished during my term of service was the removal of the word "honest" from the requirement for membership. Prior to this the requirement for membership was an honest desire to stop drinking alcohol. Now the doors of AA opened even wider with the only requirement for membership became simply a desire to stop drinking alcohol. Alcoholics Anonymous was spreading over the entire world.

At the Conference I noticed a short bald headed man sitting not far from me. I asked where he was from. I was told he was not a Delegate but an observer for Norway. I am Norwegian, and he and I became close friends. After the Conference I brought him back to Minnesota to show the few small groups we had that now AA was even in Norway. I hauled him around to speak at many groups in Southern Minnesota, and the members were impressed!

Another example of how we tried to impress early members was how my friend Icky S. from Texas used to do it. Icky was an early delegate and trustee for our General Service. Part of his drunk story included this. During the war he was a demolition expert, and he continued working with explosives after the war. He received a contract to blow up a bridge. While drunk, he blew up the wrong bridge! As a sober member of AA, he often mentioned that he would inform Texas members that our treasurer was Archibald Roosevelt, son of Teddy Roosevelt, and that also impressed the sober alcoholics! Ebby T. who brought the message to Bill, stayed at Icky's home for some time while trying to stay sober. Bill Wilson always called Ebby, "my sponsor" even when he had trouble. Thank God, Ebby died sober.

Northern Minnesota and Southern Minnesota played an important role in early AA development during what I call the missionary period, Every time one heard of a prospect the response was immediate, even though that prospect might be a great distance away. Early AA members from Minneapolis and St. Paul who became my friends include Pat B, Pat C, Marv S., Murray L, Lynn C., Ferris W, Don B, Warren M, and a man whose name now escapes me but was an elevator operator in a building in St Paul. He even had a little room in the downtown club house called his room where he would talk to any drunk who came in for help. I remember more from southern Minnesota than the northern area, because I lived there until moving to St. Cloud in 1963. The one from northern Minnesota I remember the best was Pearl N. who served as a panel delegate with me. She lived at Ely, Minnesota. There were others, but when one gets old it sometimes is hard to remember them all.

I'll never forget, however, the experience Pearl told me about when I met her at the NY Conference in 1957. Now I'll share it with you. Pearl's husband was a wilderness guide in the north country of Minnesota. One day he found a brief case someone had lost in the woods with the name Sieberling stamped on it. Pearl remembered the name Sieberling from the Big Book story of how Henrietta Sieberling had been the link bringing Bill to Dr. Bob. She wrote to Sieberling about finding the brief case and asked if Henrietta was related. She also wrote that she was an alcoholic and just elected as delegate from Northern Minnesota. Sieberling answered the letter in the affirmative and insisted on paying for Pearl's trip to Washington, DC and other places of interest while she was on her way to the NY Conference. Pearl had never been east of Minnesota before, and she could hardly believe all the wonderful things happening to her in her sobriety.

The time has come for me to end the sharing of my memories of early AA. The years have been so many that it seems I could keep talking on and on and still only cover bits of that lifetime of events and blessings granted me by membership in the Fellowship. My friendship with Bill Wilson began in St. Louis in 1955. Years later when I had my relapse, Bill really became my friend by one on one visits, telephone calls and letters. He was never judgmental and assured me that the sobriety I had in the past would always be a part of me. During this difficult period, I never stopped going to AA meetings, and Bill always tried to help and encourage me, even getting me niacin tablets at a wholesale pharmacy in NY. They had, he thought, helped his depression.

Bill died in 1971, and my last drink of alcohol the second time around did not occur until March 3, 1977 which is 19 years, four months, and 24 days ago. I believe Bill knows that I am sober today. When I think about it a glow, much better than the glow alcohol produced at the beginning of my drinking days, spreads over my entire body. Thank you God.

One last word about my relapse. Bill wrote in the 12 by 12 that "Unless one attains some degree of humility, one is condemned to drink again. I wrote about my thoughts on that in our little book called "Reflections" used by many AA groups today. For me humility is being honest with oneself in all areas of ones life and accepting what one finds during the examination of conscience. I was dishonest in one, and I drank. Today, in the eternal "Now", I am honest in that area of my life, and I have no desire to drink, a gift granted me, I believe, by the God of my understanding. as long as I remain honest with myself and try to live by the direction given in the 12 Steps.

Other words of wisdom from Bill that are very important to my sobriety: "We are granted a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition." The directions for the maintenance of my spiritual condition I find in the book "Alcoholics Anoymous. From Chapter 1, Bill's Story, I read~ "I humbly offered myself to God, as I understood Him, to do with me as he would. I placed myself undrervedly under His care and direction. I admitted for the first time that of myself I was nothing; that without Him I was lost. I made a list of people I had hurt . I was willing to approach them, admitting my wrong, never being judgmenetal. Common sense became uncommon sense. I was to sit quietly when in doubt, asking only for direction and strength to meet my problems as He woiuld have me.. When these things were done with willlingness,honesty, and humility, I would receive serenity and sobriety." These directions I must remember always. Then that gift is presented to me anew with the dawn of each day.

I had a Norwegian grandfather, born in 1839 and I remember him well--l really am old!-- who always said, "Med Gud er alt et evighet nu". Translated "With God everything is an eternal NOW". Tonight, this hour, this moment, I have no desire to drink alcohol. It is a gift from God . That gift comes to me from each one of you who has suffered with this illness as I have. I must, moment by moment, do my part: Ask my Higher Power for help, guidance and direction every morning; if someone asks me how I stay sober, I tell them how I stay sober; at night I thank God for that day of sobriety, and I review my actions during that day in the light of whether or not I acted with honesty, unselfishness, purity, and love. I try my best to do everything the 12 steps tell me to do, and the miracle happens. I have no desire to drink alcohol.

Thank you for allowing me to share my life with you. My wish and prayer is that each of you who, as alcoholics, have come to our Fellowship may find the joy, serenity, and light which always becomes a part of life for each person who enters our wide open doorway to sobriety.

* This is not a direct quote. Some added words are mine. Read "Bill's Story" for the exact wording.

The Minnesota Recovery Page thanks Alf S. for permission to post this, and thanks Don & Debbie, on whom's page I found this, for their generosity.