The Factory Owner
& the Convict

Lives and Teachings of the A.A. Old Timers

Glenn C.

Glenn Chesnut, The Factory Owner & the Convict
Glenn C., The Factory Owner & the Convict, Vol. 1 of Lives and Teachings of the A.A. Old Timers, April 2005, ISBN 0-595-34872-6, xii + 325 pp., $23.95.

The world of the good old-timers of the early Alcoholics Anonymous movement comes alive in this book. It tells the interlocking stories of seven people from diverse backgrounds -- men, women, black, white, wealthy, poor -- who lived and taught the A.A. program with such clarity and spiritual depth, that people came from miles away to sit at their feet and be taught by them.

William E. Correll (Life Treatment Center) "This book describes the way alcoholics actually think better than anything I have ever read."

This account was originally written for the local intergroups, to tell how A.A. began during the 1940's and 50's in the cities and towns along the St. Joseph river, as it wound its way through Indiana and Michigan to empty into the Great Lakes.

But then all across the country, people struggling with alcoholism and addiction began asking for copies, and psychotheraptists and counselors too. It spoke to the heart, they said. It made the twelve step program come alive and showed how it really worked. And above all, they reported, they had found that the words of these men and women were filled with a kind of spiritual wisdom and deep compassion which had the power to heal the soul.

So this new edition of The Factory Owner & the Convict has now been prepared, with the last half now printed as a separate volume entitled The St. Louis Gambler & the Railroad Man.

This is the kind of good old-time A.A. teaching
that gets people sober and keeps them sober

In the St. Joe river valley A.A. tradition, when alcoholics came to them and kept going to meetings, 75% of these people got sober, even in a penitentiary setting. They found that they could achieve a 40% success rate in state-run alcoholism treatment facilities if they were given sufficient access to the patients. Even to this day, in the groups in this area who still give their people "real old-time A.A. straight up" in the old St. Joe valley tradition, it has been found that 75% to 80% of the alcoholics who will attend their meetings for a year, not only get sober, but stay sober, even when follow-up studies are done five years or ten years later.


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Satellite photo showing South Bend, Indiana, and the northeastern United States

  The city of South Bend, located where the St. Joseph river turns north to empty into Lake Michigan, is at the center of the St. Joe river valley region. Indiana is the state immediately to the west of Ohio (where A.A. was founded in Akron in 1935). For the benefit of readers from other parts of the world, so they can get a better idea of the scale and distances involved, Indiana has a land area roughly equivalent to that of Ireland or Portugal, and a population about that of Scotland.  

On February 22, 1943, two men -- Ken M. (the factory owner) and Soo C. -- with only a copy of the Big Book to help them, began an A.A. group in South Bend on the northern border, which rapidly became a major regional center. People along the St. Joseph river and its tributaries (in towns like Mishawaka, Elkhart, Goshen, and Niles) along with people from the southern coast of Lake Michigan (in cities like Michigan City and Gary) came to the A.A. meetings in South Bend and then went back home to establish A.A. groups there.

See the story of how A.A. came to South Bend: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
It was an important creative center for new ideas. The South Bend A.A. people, for example, founded one of the two best known early A.A. prison groups, which was begun at the Indiana State Penitentiary at Michigan City in 1944. It was presented as a model to prison wardens all over the United States and played a major role in demonstrating how well A.A. groups could work in penal institutions.

See the account of the early A.A. prison group at Michigan City: Part 1, Warden Al Dowd's article in Prison World describing the group in Part 2, and the letters from Bill W. in Part 3.
One of the more important early black A.A. groups in the United States was established in South Bend in 1948, and quickly established links with the Evans Avenue Group in Chicago, to form a Chicago-Gary-South Bend axis of strong black A.A. groups and a long series of great A.A. teachers and speakers who played a major leadership role in AA. in general all over that part of the upper midwest. The stories and teachings of Brownie, Goshen Bill, and a woman named Jimmy M. are featured prominently in these two volumes.

See the interviews with early black leaders from the region: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. See also "The Wisdom of Goshen Bill" and the lead given by John S. from Gary, Indiana, a man whose devoted A.A. service work carried him all over the state.
Still to this date, young men make pilgrimages to South Bend, many coming every year, from places like Lansing and Ann Arbor in central and southeastern Michigan, from Bloomington in southern Indiana, and from the suburbs of Chicago as well, to pay homage to the memories of Nick Kowalski (the convict who was one of the founding members of the A.A. prison group at the Michigan City penitentiary) and Brownie (the St. Louis gambler who got sober in South Bend and became one of the greatest black leaders in the upper midwest).

People traveled from miles away to hear Ken M., who explained the basic psychological principles of the A.A. program in terms which everyone could understand, and to hear the simple but profound spiritual message of Nick and Brownie and Goshen Bill, and the other great teachers of the St. Joseph river valley region. Newcomers were told from the moment they came in, "if you ain't praying you ain't staying," that is, if they did not call upon the grace of God every day to save them from their alcoholic obsession, and if they did not learn to depend totally on his help and care, they would never be able to stay sober.

Bridge over the St. Joseph river in South Bend, Indiana, near the Hindsfoot Foundation office

  South Bend, Indiana, the bridge over the St. Joseph river carrying the great Dixie Highway heading south to Florida. This was one of the first major roads crossing the United States from border to border. The University of Notre Dame campus begins half a mile north, while the Indiana University campus is located on the river a mile upstream to the east.  

Volume 1


Part I.  Introduction

Chapter 1.  My Story Is My Message

Part II.  Ken M.'s Early Life: From Rags to Riches

Chapter 2.  The Wounded Healer
Chapter 3.  Expelled from School
Chapter 4.  The Traveling Salesman Who Played the Organ
Chapter 5.  World War I: Interlude at Sea
Chapter 6.  Marriage to Helen and Move to South Bend
Chapter 7.  The Successful Young Factory Owner
Chapter 8.  Breakdown and Collapse

Part III.  Nick K.'s Early Life: From the Orphanage to the Penitentiary

Chapter 9.  The Brave Young Man Who Didn't Even Cry
Chapter 10.  Black Fig Wine and Jail Cells
Chapter 11.  The Murder of Joseph Desits

Part IV.  Ken and Soo Found the South Bend Alcoholics Anonymous Group

Chapter 12.  Ken and Soo Start Their A.A. Group
Chapter 13.  The First Twenty Members

Part V.  Nick K. and the A.A. Prison Group

Chapter 14.  Joining Hands with the Convicts
Chapter 15.  Doing God's Time
Chapter 16.  Little Boys and Girls in Grown-ups' Bodies

Part VI.  Bill H. and Jimmy M.: Winning Inclusion for Black Alcoholics

Chapter 17.  Jimmy's Bar
Chapter 18.  The Interracial Group
Chapter 19.  Meetings and Steps in Early A.A.
Chapter 20.  He Knew It Was a God


The A.A. Tools of Recovery

The little summary of basic A.A. principles, put together by
some of the good old-timers from the St. Joseph river valley,
is often read at the beginning of meetings in their region.


  We commit ourselves to stay away from the first drink, one day at a time.  


  We attend A.A. meetings to learn how the program works, to share our experience, strength and hope with each other, and because through the support of the fellowship, we can do what we could never do alone.  


  A sponsor is a person in the A.A. program who has what we want and is continually sober. A sponsor is someone you can relate to, have access to and can confide in.  


  The telephone is our lifeline -- our meetings between meetings. Call before you take the first drink. The more numbers you have, the more insurance you have.  


  The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is our basic tool and text. The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions and A.A. pamphlets are recommended reading, and are available at this meeting.  


  Service helps our personal program grow. Service is giving in A.A. Service is leading a meeting, making coffee, moving chairs, being a sponsor, or emptying ashtrays. Service is action, and action is the magic word in this program.  


  Whom you see here, what you hear here, when you leave here, let it stay here. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of our program.