A walk around St. Johnsbury
June 17, 2008, 1:38 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Time on your hands? Wondering what to do this summer in Vermont? AA historian Dick B. has written up a detailed suggestion for a walking tour of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, Dr. Bob’s boyhood home. Sounds like a good time. (Thanks, Dick, for sending this our way!)


1. Begin at Dr. Bob’s Birthplace and Boyhood Home at 297 Summer Street.

2. Snap a photo of yourself and Dr. Bob’s family home.

3. Visit the premises.

4. If you like, attend one of the “open” A.A. meetings held there.

5. NORTH CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH, ST. JOHNSBURY: Walk to the Smith family church at 1325 Main Street–North Congregational Church, St. Johnsbury.

6. Snap a photo of yourself and the beautiful, towering stone edifice.

7. Enter the church and view the ornate sanctuary.

8. Allow ample time to see, browse, and study the materials in the Dr. Bob Core Library, which has been graciously provided, and is maintained, by the church.

9. The Dr. Bob Core Library volumes will tell you, as to the church, where the family of Judge Walter P. Smith—Bob’s father—worshipped on Sunday morning, attended Sunday school that afternoon, and that evening heard preaching and united in prayers (and also attended such YMCA events, lectures, and concerts as were provided there). You will see where the church’s Christian Endeavor Society for young people held its meetings. You can read volumes of material on Christian Endeavor and on the history of Christian Endeavor in Caledonia County. You may learn the subject of the sermons, the Sunday school lessons, the Sunday prayer meetings, and the Wednesday evening prayer and Christian Endeavor meetings. You will see the extensive, varied, and reported details of the “Great Awakening” of 1875 in St. Johnsbury, which transformed the town, the church, and the people of St. Johnsbury; converted hundreds to Christ and impacted on community life for decades thereafter. There is much on the history of the North Church; the role of Fairbanks family members as donors, builders, office holders, and Sunday school and mission work participants. Governor Erastus Fairbanks was a lifetime Deacon to the church. There are many records of the extensive church participation by the Smith family members (including Judge Walter P. Smith, Mrs. Susan H. Smith, Mrs. Smith’s mother, Dr. Bob, and Dr. Bob’s foster sister Amanda Northrup). There is much material to assist visitors in understanding the relevance of the church and its training to the subsequent history and program of Alcoholics Anonymous, its founders, principles, and practices. You will have an opportunity to get a greater perception of the Bible roots of the Akron Christian A.A. Fellowship. And how these Vermont roots figured largely in A.A. beginnings—with its required conversions; required reliance on God; required five elements of recovery; weekly and almost daily “old fashioned prayer meetings;” stress on reading of the Bible privately and at meetings; stress on cultivation of the habit of prayer; regular seeking of God’s guidance; Quiet Time, the use of devotionals, and frequent reading of Christian literature; and persistent and continuing personal work in love and service to provide free help to new alcoholics so that they could get straightened out and live successful spiritual lives. In the language of A.A.‘s own Big Book text, the recovered pioneers were said to have become happy, joyous, and free. They had conceded to their innermost selves that they were alcoholic and could not manage their own lives; that probably no human power could relieve them, and that—when God had been sought and they had established a relationship with Him—God could and would do, and had done, for them what they could not do for themselves. They vociferously declared that they had been cured by the power of God; that the Creator had healed them of their terrible malady; and that they had unselfishly been moved to witness to others precisely how this miracle of recovery had been accomplished.

10. Consider dropping a donation in the box.

11. FAIRBANKS MUSEUM AND PLANETARIUM: Cross Main Street to the impressive Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium, donated to the Town of St. Johnsbury by Colonel Franklin Fairbanks, and containing substantial historical archives, diaries, and records.

12. Snap a photo.

13. Visit the museum.

14. Make an appointment, if desired, to view the historical records in their archives.

15. THE ST. JOHNSBURY ATHENAEUM: Walk south to 1171 Main Street to the magnificent St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, a library for the town and for St. Johnsbury Academy “scholars” (i.e., students). Built in the Second Empire style, the Athenaeum was a gift to the town from Governor Horace Fairbanks in 1871. It contains a treasure trove of books, manuscripts, photos, papers, and other historical materials. Researchers and historians, as well those in recovery, can–as we did–spend hours and hours in the comfortable library amidst its well-stocked shelves and stacks.

16. Snap a photo of yourself and the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum

17. Be sure to visit the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum. Utilize the available help from the library staff, indexes, computers, and copy facilities. There are comfortable chairs, adequate rest rooms, water fountains, and newspapers.

18. Consider dropping a donation in the box.

19. Spend substantial time reviewing the history of the Green Mountain state and the sons and daughters of Vermont. Examine the history of St. Johnsbury, the extensive role of the Fairbanks family in community affairs, the immense economic blessings emanating from the invention of the platform scale by Thaddeus Fairbanks and the long-lasting success of the Fairbanks Scales business. Look through the town directories which tell the story, year by year, of the Smith family’s great involvement in the affairs of the community. Search the Smith family genealogy; the activities of North Congregational Church, St. Johnsbury, and the town’s other churches; Congregationalism in Vermont; the YMCA in Vermont; the “Great Awakening” of 1875 in St. Johnsbury; the Christian Endeavor Society in St. Johnsbury and in Vermont; Temperance activities; and the role of women (including Mrs. Walter P. Smith) in domestic missionary work, women’s clubs, local and traveling libraries, Temperance, and the St. Johnsbury Academy.

20. View on the microfilm reader the complete newspaper accounts of Dr. Bob’s boyhood days in St. Johnsbury in the St. Johnsbury Caledonian (town newspaper), which is today known as the Caledonian-Record.

21. See the genealogies, biographies, and historical activities of the important sons of Vermont.

22. THE FORMER SITE OF THE ST. JOHNSBURY YMCA BUILDING (destroyed by fire in 1984 and then demolished), Eastern Avenue.
Rev. Henry Fairbanks donated the YMCA building which was constructed in 1885 and located just off Main Street at 113 Eastern Avenue (until it was destroyed by fire in 1984). Prior to the erection of the building, the state Executive Committee of the Vermont YMCA had conducted Gospel “canvasses” in St. Johnsbury (and throughout Vermont for several years beginning in 1875) and—through the work of lay evangelists—catalyzed the “Great Awakening” of 1875 in St. Johnsbury itself through “Gospel Meetings” which built on the prayers for revival and “union meetings” of the local churches of several denominations in St. Johnsbury. Even the Fairbanks Scales plant was opened at noon time for prayer meetings. Hundreds were converted to Christ during this revival work. At least one report made at the national YMCA Convention in Richmond, Virginia, in 1875, placed the number of decisions for Christ at 1,500—almost one-third of the town population. And YMCA people continued the evangelical work for some time after 1875.
Dr. Bob’s father, Judge Walter P. Smith, was president of the St. Johnsbury YMCA in 1895 and 1897. Fairbanks family members were leaders in its evangelical work, beginning no later than the annual State of Vermont YMCA Convention held in Norwich in November of 1874.
The YMCA provided Bible classes, Bible studies, Bible conversation classes, and meetings for young men. It conducted lectures, concerts, and other events in the churches and at St. Johnsbury Academy. It provided gym facilities for young men; and it worked in close cooperation with St. Johnsbury Academy, running regular advertisements in the student newspaper.

23. THE COURT HOUSE, Main Street, and Judge Walter P. Smith (Bob’s father)
Just across the street from the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum is the court house where Dr. Bob’s father, Walter Perrin Smith, served many successive elected terms as Probate Judge handling the settling of estates and probate of wills. The Judge is also frequently listed and recorded among the community lawyers. He served as a town agent and village auditor; superintendent of schools; State’s attorney; and representative for St. Johnsbury in the Vermont Legislature. At the North Congregational Church, St. Johnsbury, he was a Sunday school teacher for many years, a Sunday school superintendent, and a Deacon. Prior to becoming a lawyer, he taught in schools and served as Principal of Hardwick Academy. He served St. Johnsbury Academy as one of its examiners. The Judge was long involved in the local banking system as an investor, director, trustee, and officer in three of the town’s banks–Merchants National, Passumpsic Savings, and First National. He became President of Carrick Brothers Granite Company. He was a widely sought-after speaker at political events, a Republican, and a well-known Congregationalist.

24. ST. JOHNSBURY ACADEMY, 1000 Main Street (Mrs. Walter Smith and Bob himself)
Dominating the south end of Main Street is the campus of St. Johnsbury Academy, which was founded by the three Fairbanks brothers–Thaddeus, Erastus, and Joseph P. The details of this unusual facility can best be learned by making an appointment in advance to visit with the Academy archivist, Joanne Bertrand, who works at the Grace Orcutt Library on campus.

25. Snap several photos of yourself, of the Academy buildings, and of South Church next door where daily chapel was often held.

26. Located in the archives are many of the founding papers requiring religious training and Bible study. Academy governing papers required that trustees be members of a Congregational Church, that “scholars” attend Daily Chapel where there were Scripture readings, sermons, exhortations, prayers, and singing. All scholars were duty-bound to attend a church service and a Bible study once each week.
Important archival and library papers include school catalogs showing the textbooks, curricula, trustees, Principal, staff, teachers, and scholars in attendance. There are histories of the Academy (at least one of which was partially prepared by Mrs. Walter P. Smith), attendance cards for Bob and, earlier, his mother; photographs of Dr. Bob and of his graduating class; Dr. Bob’s commencement program which names him as Orator; accounts of Bob’s activities as Manager and member of the Glee Club; Dr. Bob’s participation in debates, a fraternity, and class offices; class notes about Dr. Bob; and many copies of the student newspaper (both at the Academy and at the Athenaeum). Papers also show Bob’s mother as an Academy student, then an Academy teacher, then an active member of the Alumni Executive Committee, presenter of a large portion of the school’s history at major celebrations, and author of two chapters of a book on the history of the Academy.

Robert Holbrook Smith (A.A.’s Dr. Bob)–who was born August 8, 1879, in the family home at 20 Summer Street in St. Johnsbury–is listed as a member and Sunday school scholar at North Congregational Church, St. Johnsbury. He himself wrote that he was active in the Christian Endeavor Society of North Congregational Church. He wrote, and records confirm, that he and his family regularly attended Sunday morning service, Sunday school, and Sunday evening service, as well as the Christian Endeavor meeting. Frequently, Bob attended the church prayer meeting on Wednesday and regularly attended Christian Endeavor meetings on Wednesday. He attended the local Summer Street School and was later a scholar at St. Johnsbury Academy from 1894 to 1898 (at which time he graduated). He attended and graduated from Dartmouth. And he received medical training at the University of Michigan and at Rush. He later received specialist training as a proctologist and practiced medicine in Akron, Ohio. Plagued with alcoholism since college days, he prayed for recovery with a small group of Christians at the home of inventor T. Henry Williams in Akron. Shortly after he thus sought God’s help, he attained sobriety. The date was June 10, 1935, regarded as the founding day of A.A. by Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson of New York. From that date on, Dr. Bob personally helped over 5,000 drunks to recover, without charge to the drunk. This selfless service led A.A. cofounder Bill Wilson to dub Dr. Bob the “Prince of all Twelfth Steppers.” Dr. Bob had met Anne Robinson Ripley (his wife-to-be) at a St. Johnsbury Academy dance. He later married her at her home in Illinois and settled in the family home at 855 Ardmore Avenue in Akron where A.A. is said to have been founded. Anne Smith died first; Dr. Bob died shortly thereafter; and the two are buried in Akron. Both Dr. Bob and his wife were deeply committed to serving the Creator; were devout Christians; and were strong believers in Bible study, prayer, and seeking God’s guidance. Both widely read, recommended, and distributed Christian literature to early A.A. pioneers. And Dr. Bob assured newcomers to A.A. that–if they went to any lengths to establish their relationship with God, accept Christ, follow his teachings, abstain from drinking and temptation, diligently seek God’s help, and witness in love and service to newcomers in recovery: “Your Heavenly Father will never let you down!” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., p. 181).

The “excellent training” Dr. Bob had received in the “Good Book” as a youngster in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, provided the foundation for the “absolutely essential” Bible-basics of the early A.A. program. That original program achieved a documented, 75% success rate in Akron [and was followed up by the documented, 93% success rate in Cleveland (under Dr. Bob’s sponsee, Clarence Snyder)] among seemingly-hopeless, medically-incurable, real alcoholics who went to any lengths to be cured. He declared that A.A.’s basic ideas came from the Bible study done by the A.A. pioneers–particularly in the Book of James, in the Sermon on the Mount, and in 1 Corinthians 13.

Dr. Bob’s mother, Mrs. Walter P. Smith (Susan Holbrook Smith–born Susan Amanda Holbrook), can–in the alumni, faculty, and other library records of St. Johnsbury Academy, in St. Johnsbury Athenaeum records, in women’s affairs records, in St. Johnsbury Caledonian newspaper articles, and in missionary records–be seen as very much involved in: (1) church service, (2) Sunday school service, (3) the Vermont Domestic Missionary Society, (4) libraries, (5) education, (6) Temperance activities, and (7) music. She was also involved in St. Johnsbury community affairs through other teaching and other religious activities, and through other Academy-related activities. Susan attended St. Johnsbury Academy and graduated from it in 1874. She then taught at St. Johnsbury Academy from 1874 to 1876. She and Judge Smith were married shortly thereafter after. Based on our intensive research over the past eight months, it seems very likely that both of Dr. Bob’s parents were impacted by the “Great Awakening” of 1875 in St. Johnsbury. Both were listed in North Congregational Church records in beginning in 1878 and became members in 1882. In the church, Mrs. Smith served as Sunday school teacher, Sunday school superintendent, Intermediate Department superintendent, president of the Women’s Club, editor of its cook book volume, member of the Vermont Domestic Missionary Society, and participant in the church quartet. She is listed as a participant in the Women‘s Christian Temperance Union. Through her activity with the International Women’s Clubs and the St. Johnsbury Women’s Club, she was singled out as the well-known and tireless worker for the free state library facilities in rural communities. She became a member of the State Library Commission.

1 Comment so far
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Thank you for posting this resource. The Dr. Bob Core Library has expanded even more since this article.
Glad you appreciated the importance of this walk. And I hope many travel to Vermont to visit the Wilson House at East Dorset; the entire community of St. Johnsbury Vermont; and the Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester where Bill Wilson matriculated for four years, attended daily chapel, weekly Congregational services, a four year Bible study course, and was YMCA president. God Bless, Dick B.

Comment by Dick B.

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