How A.A. Came to Indiana

Glenn C. (South Bend, Indiana)

Leaves of the tulip poplar tree, the Indiana state tree
Leaves of the tulip tree,
the Indiana state tree

"J. D. Holmes and the First A.A. Group in Indiana:  Evansville, April 23, 1940"  The man who started A.A. in Indiana was a man named James D. "J. D." Holmes. He was one of the original Akron A.A. group. He got sober in September 1936:  if we count Bill W. and Dr. Bob as numbers one and two, J. D. was A.A. number ten. On May 30, 1938, he and his wife Rhoda moved to Evansville, Indiana, which is in the extreme southwestern part of the state, on the banks of the Ohio river. He was unable to get any other alcoholics in Evansville to join him until the Big Book was published in 1939. Dr. Bob sent him a copy of the Big Book the minute it came off the press, and with this new aid, he was able to reach out to a local surgeon, Dr. Joe Welborn, after Dr. Joe's drinking finally landed him in the county jail in April of 1940. Dr. Joe brought in other alcoholics who were patients of his, and the first A.A. group in Indiana met on Tuesday evening, April 23, 1940, in J. D. and Rhoda's home at 420 S. Denby St. in Evansville. (That original group has changed its place of meeting over the years, but has continued to meet every Tuesday night in Evansville all the way down to the present, being referred to now as the Tri-State Group.) Five or six months later, a good Irish Catholic businessman in Indianapolis named Doherty Sheerin visited J. D. and learned how to set up an A.A. group. On October 28, 1940, the first Indianapolis group was set up, and J. D. and Dohr began working together to spread A.A. into other parts of Indiana as well.

"Early Evansville A.A."  A detailed account compiled from material collected by archivist Bob E. from Evansville. On April 23, 1940, James D. ("J. D.") Holmes and Dr. Joseph E. Welborn started the first A.A. group in Indiana, meeting at J. D. and Rhoda's home at 420 S. Denby Street in Evansville every Tuesday night. Dr. Joe died only 4 months later, on August 18, 1940, but Dr. Clifford Richey, his partner, had also joined A.A. before Dr. Joe's death. Dr. Richey and J. D. now became the key A.A. leaders in Evansville. Dr. Richey died on September 8, 1950, and J. D. went back to Akron around 1951, where he worked as a writer on the Beacon-Journal newspaper, bringing an end to the first era of Evansville A.A. history. It became time for a new generation to lead the A.A. movement in the Evansville area.
"Doherty Sheerin and the Founding of A.A. in Indianapolis:  October 28, 1940"  Also Ralph Pfau (Father John Doe), the author of the Golden Books and the founder of the Catholic Clergy Conference on Alcoholism. Father Ralph, who lived in Indianapolis, was the first Roman Catholic priest to get sober in A.A.

Neil S. (Fishers IN), "History of Indianapolis A.A.", including a detailed memoir written by Doherty Sheerin's niece Laura describing her uncle's battle with alcoholism and his founding of the first A.A. group in Indianapolis. It was one of the first 27 A.A. groups founded in the U.S. Other than Chicago and three groups in Michigan, the Indiana groups in Indianapolis and Evansville were at that time the only A.A. groups west of Ohio in the entire American midwest. Traveling west, one had to go all the way to Little Rock, Arkansas, Houston, Texas, or to California over on the west coast before finding any other A.A. groups.

For more on Father Ralph see Glenn C., "Ralph Pfau (Father John Doe) and the Golden Books" and other materials in the section of this web site on A.A. Historical Materials. Ralph is one of the four most published early A.A. authors.
"The Third A.A. Group Started in Indiana:  Fort Wayne, December 1941"  C. L. Buckley and three other men from Fort Wayne form the first A.A. group in their city after contact with the Indianapolis A.A. group.

John Barleycorn, "A Nun's Story: Sister Ruth Finds God in the A.A. Meetings," tells the story of Sister Ruth (born August 28, 1926, sober August 28, 1983), one of the most inspiring spiritual figures in A.A. in the Fort Wayne area.
John Barleycorn, "I'm not a Nice Guy," memorial for Stanley "Skeets" Richards, one of the great Fort Wayne A.A. old timers, December 21, 1922-August 24, 2007.
"The St. Joseph River Valley Region:  South Bend, February 22, 1943 "  The St. Joe valley area refers to the four central cities along the river and its tributaries -- South Bend, Mishawaka, Elkhart, and Goshen -- together with the surrounding parts of northern Indiana and southwestern Michigan. Ken Merrill and Soo Cates founded the first A.A. meeting in that region, in South Bend, as the fourth A.A. group started in Indiana. At the beginning, A.A. in this area had no contact with A.A. in the rest of the state, but developed its own style.

THE MICHIANA CONFERENCE, a one day conference with five A.A. and Al-Anon speakers and a banquet, held in South Bend every Fall, draws people from all over the St. Joe River Valley region and beyond.

See the two recent books The Factory Owner & the Convict and The St. Louis Gambler & the Railroad Man for the story of how A.A. began in the St. Joseph river valley region of Indiana and Michigan.

Kenneth G. Merrill, the founder of South Bend A.A., was a successful factory owner and also a talented writer, who had published short stories and articles in a number of major magazines. Along with Sgt. Bill S., he was one of the spokesmen for that side of early A.A. which chose to emphasize the psychological aspects of the program more strongly than the spiritual side. Ken wrote a very valuable article, "Drunks Are a Mess," explaining how alcoholics become frozen in childhood by traumas or some other kind of difficult situation into inappropriate ways of dealing with the world. One can often pin the blockage down to a specific age, such as 9 years old, 12 years old, or 16 years old. In this understanding of A.A., a major part of the healing involves "re-parenting" the newcomers, where the old-timers act as good grandparents, uncles, aunts, older brothers and sisters, or the like, and teach the newcomers how to cope more effectively with the adult world.

Later on, South Bend figures like Nick Kowalski and Brownie supplied a strong and impressive spiritual emphasis as well, as a kind of complement to Ken's psychological approach, so that on the issue of psychological vs. spiritual interpretations of the program, A.A. in the St. Joseph river valley eventually tended to be both-and rather than either-or.
"Brownie's and the Dignitaries Sympathy Groups"  Brownie's at 616 Pierce St. in South Bend, site of annual pilgrimages by the Dignitaries Sympathy groups to honor the memory of Brownie and Nick Kowalski.

"The Books the Good Old-Timers Read"  Their basic rules and guidelines: how they made their decisions about which works could be read in meetings, which works were recommended to the newer A.A. members, and which works ought to be sold at their groups and intergroups. The Big Book, Twenty-Four Hours a Day, the Golden Books, The Little Red Book, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Emmet Fox's Sermon on the Mount, The Upper Room, and other works read in early A.A.

"The A.A. Prison Group Founded in 1944 at the Indiana State Prison at Michigan City"  This was not the earliest such prison group started. The one at San Quentin in California was founded in 1942, and there were others begun before the one at Michigan City. But Warden Al Dowd at Michigan City was so pleased with what the A.A. group was doing, that he made a major effort on his own to encourage other prison wardens to allow the A.A. people to start programs inside the walls. So the Indiana prison group became one of the two best known during the early period. It is also, at this point, the early prison group about which the most is known.

"Early Black A.A. along the Chicago-Gary-South Bend Axis"  The Stories and Memories of Early Black Leaders Told in Their Own Words. Some of the earliest black A.A. groups in the United States were formed c. 1945-48 along an axis running from Chicago eastward through Gary to South Bend, Indiana. These three cities were linked by an interurban rail line called the South Shore Railroad which made it easy for people to travel back and forth. We know much more at present about early black A.A. in this area than we do about any other part of the United States.

See also "The Wisdom of Goshen Bill."  William Henry Caldwell (Goshen Bill) was ranked with Brownie, Bill Hoover, and Jimmy Miller as one of the four great black A.A. leaders of the St. Joseph river valley during the early period.  "John Shaifer"  in Gary was an important black A.A. leader of the next generation.
"Adventure of Recovery:  The Beginnings of A.A. in Anderson, June 1943-February 9, 1947"  An article written by the A.A. group in Anderson and published in their Handout c. 1982, gives the story of George L., the founder of A.A. in Anderson. George first got sober when he was in the Beech Grove sanitarium in Indianapolis in June 1943, and was visited by A.A. members Doherty Sheerin and Harry M.

Richmond 1945-46  The beginnings of A.A. in Richmond, Indiana and the surrounding parts of Indiana and Ohio, a detailed fifty-page account by Robert S. The town of Richmond is on the state line, roughly halfway between Indianapolis and Dayton, Ohio. The story began when Bob B., a paint store owner in Richmond, got sober by visiting a business associate in Philadelphia, a man named Jim Burwell who had gotten sober in 1938 and had started A.A. in that city. Jim's story in the Big Book is called "The Vicious Cycle" (it is on page 219 in the current 4th edition). Jim was the early New York A.A. group's first "self-proclaimed atheist," the one who insisted that the phrase "as we understood Him" had to be added to the reference to God in Steps 3 and 11.

"Kosciusko County:  September 30, 1946"  Ilene S. (Warsaw, Indiana), "Historical Highlights of the Monday Night Kosciusko Combined Group." Early A.A. in Warsaw, North Manchester, North Webster, Syracuse, South Whitley, Columbia City, Milford, and other nearby towns (including Rochester). Weekend spiritual retreats for A.A. members at the Wawasee Prep School in Syracuse:  conducted by Father David G. Suelzer, who was not an A.A. member, but devoted a good deal of his time to helping recovering people. "The Wisdom of Goshen Bill," one of the four great black A.A. leaders of the St. Joseph river valley. In Memoriam:  Big Al Miller, Milford, Indiana (born May 22, 1931, sober December 1, 1973, died September 21, 2000). Member of our Archives Committee, his quiet, reassuring presence was always there, and gave us strength. We will all of us miss him more than we can say.

"Gary, Indiana:  John Shaifer's Lead"  For many years John traveled all over the state of Indiana, reaching out to the men and women in the penitentiaries and prisons. He was deeply respected by all for his wisdom and his tireless work and dedication. He was another of the great heroes of Hoosier A.A.

"A Brief History of A.A. in Delaware County in Indiana"  by Bruce C. (Muncie, Indiana). How A.A. began in Muncie and the surrounding parts of east central Indiana, including Union City, Dunkirk, Hartford City, Winchester, New Castle, Yorktown, Montpelier, Anderson, Marion, Richmond, and Cambridge City. Assembled from the New York AA Archives and the A.A. Grapevine, together with Indiana newspaper archives and the Ball State University archives and special collections. New revised version, March 27, 2008.

"The Lafayette area: January 1948"  Lafayette (the home of Purdue University) is on the banks of the Wabash river in western Indiana. The surrounding area includes the Indiana towns of Oxford, Crawfordsville, Boswell, and Attica.

"The First A.A. Group in Rensselaer: early 1948"  Rensselaer is a small town in western Indiana almost on the Illinois border, only fifty miles south of Chicago, which may explain A.A. founder Alan K.'s probable linkage with the Chicago A.A. movement.

Map of Indiana


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