How McHenry’s Soberfest Got Started

What follows is a letter from one of the founders of McHenry’s Soberfest. The original letter can be seen in our Archives room at the conference.  Note that in 2008 McHenry’s Soberfest was still being held at The Abbey Resort and has since moved to The Grand Geneva Resort – which the author refers to as the “Playboy Resort” because of it’s history.

August 15, 2008

Dear McHenry Soberfest Committee,

As one of the founders of McHenry’s Soberfest, this committee has asked me to recount how the Soberfest was conceived and how we began the event. This is our story as best as I can recall.

I got sober in McHenry IL. On September 9th. 1982 and while making every mistake possible God kept me sober. A few years later I heard a man named Bruce talking about a conference he went to that really opened his eyes to sobriety. He invited me to join him the next time and we went to the “Autumn in the Ozarks” A.A. conference in Bull Shoals AR. We attended several conferences in Arkansas each time returning with a dream of having one in our own back yard.

Bruce and I started to share that dream at our meetings in McHenry. One day we got Gary P’s attention and began to realize that if this were to become a reality, maybe we had to do more than dream… The three of us began talking with John C. Now there were four but that’s all there were. We couldn’t seem to generate any more interest. We began to vacillate on what to do. Perhaps a day of sharing. Maybe a few speakers from nearby areas. Maybe this or maybe that…. We soon realized that fear began to rule us but, if God wanted another way to carry this message to alcoholics and their families, He was going to supply the strength and courage for it to happen and direct us in ways we’ve never been led before. We didn’t know it then but McHenry’s first conference began to formulate

Our first committee meeting was at Bruce’s house. The four of us were now determined to go for a full-fledged A.A. Conference. We started to make headway, or so we thought. Since we didn’t seem to gather interest early on, we invited our Alanon wives to join our committee. It never entered our minds that if this were to be an A.A. conference, all members of the committee had to be A.A. members. Over a year went by with these ladies putting their all into weekly meetings before we were told that they couldn’t have a vote in the decision making process of what was to become your Soberfest. They could keep attending our weekly meetings but couldn’t participate in them. We made a lot of mistakes in our first year but this was the most painful to correct. . There’s a debt of gratitude owed to them. They knew how important it was to never loose sight of the idea that this event was to be for families. So for the two years it took for the First Soberfest to culminate, these four women never stopped attending our weekly committee meetings. They couldn’t vote but they were of immense value and service to what by then, became a much larger committee. The Alanons now had their own committee; Aggie L was their first chairperson. Things were beginning to happen.

We began to be recognized by the Service structure in our Area and received a lot of advice from both past and serving committees of the Illinois State Conference. Word of mouth began to spread and we were beginning to feel we could pull this thing off. (On a sad note, Bruce had some important personal issues to attend to. He was to be our first Chairperson. We’d been through so much together and he was leaving.) So thank you Bruce, for sharing your dream and helping to make it a reality for all of us. We needed a new chairperson. John C. and I were voted in to be Co-chairs.

We had no idea where the event could be held, let alone, how many people would show up. What were we going to call it? Keep in mind we didn’t realize it would become an annual conference yet. There was much to be done but we kept saying “If God wants it, It will be” We said that a lot, by the way. The Holiday Inn Hotel was newly built in Crystal Lake, IL. So we went for it. Why not, “if God wants it”…you get the point! The Hotel manager was quoting figures far from our budget and in a few hours of meetings, finally capitulated and agreed to the only terms we could afford. A.A. was going “first class” one more time. Dates were set, Speakers were committing, and budgets were forming. O.K., what’s our name to be? Well this was becoming bigger than our little community but we wanted it to be recognized and since that’s were it all began we felt McHenry should be in our name. Some events were called ‘Soberfests’ and we agreed that name seemed to fit. A festival of sobriety. So we had a name, or did we? If all this work was getting accomplished, why just one Soberfest? Why not make it an annual event? We made that decision while all of our committee was being complimented a dinner at the hotel. There’s something to be said about dressing up a bunch of drunks, throwing in a free meal with a beautiful setting and making big decisions. That’s how we got our name people. We became the committee hosting “McHenry’s First Annual Soberfest”.

The first Soberfest filled close to capacity in October of 1990. We got to see God’s hand directing us in so many ways and were so grateful for all the participation of surrounding A.A. and Alanon Family Groups

The second Soberfest found me as its chairperson with a committee that made the job a fairly easy task. By then, we became recognized throughout our Area and neighboring Areas. Help was well at hand and we used it all. We filled to capacity turning some away and began to see a problem. The hotel wanted a lot more money and wouldn’t bend plus experienced people convinced us that the Soberfest might die if we didn’t get a larger venue.

Here is the story of how “McHenry’s Soberfest” started to be held in Lake Geneva. Since we had to find a new place, we divided up into search committees. My sponsor Dick O. and I were sent on a scouting mission. We were to cover Southern Wisconsin visiting the places listed in our assignment. After seeing the Playboy Resort, we started to drive around the lake without a clue of where we were headed when Dick said he needed a restroom “now”! I remembered being very near the Abby Resort so we turned into this very beautiful setting. Dick said “Wow”. As we walked in, Dick kept saying “wow”. After all the “wows,” I said, ”Dick I know this place isn’t on our list but maybe we could ask?” He looked at me as if I’d lost it, but honestly, my thoughts were to try anyway. Maybe I was nuts. I just had this very strong urge to try. It just so happened that all the managers we needed to talk to were there and willing to speak to us. After an hour’s conversation knowing we had this beautiful place if we wanted it, we explained that a committee had to be answered to but we liked what they proposed. If we’d agree on having our conference the week before Thanksgiving their prices were less expensive than the Holiday Inn. We were meeting that evening with good news for our committee and agreed unanimously. Hands down, this is the best restroom story I know. And it’s absolutely true. Quite a beginning wasn’t it. So whenever anyone asks, how this conference became, the Annual McHenry’s Soberfest held in Lake Geneva Wis. You can tell them about Dick.

For Bruce, Gary, John, Our wives and everyone who took time out of their lives to make it happen.

Thank you so much for working so hard to keep the Soberfest growing and carrying the message.


In love and service,

Norb [last name omitted]
Past Chairperson
McHenry’s Soberfest