Hilltown haven: The lost and found story of a lesbian couple who ran Middlefield resort

  • Mabel Stevens and her brother ice skating, date unknown. Submitted photos/Sexual Minorities Archives

  • A photo believed to be of Dr. Amber Starbuck on horseback. Submitted photos/Sexual Minorities Archives

  • People pose at the Big House circa the 1930s in a photo included in an album the home’s current owner kept and gave to the Sexual Minorities Archives.  Submitted photos/Sexual Minorities Archives

  • Ben Power Alwin, who is the executive director of the Sexual Minorities Archives in Holyoke, talks about his work in a library at the archives, Tuesday, April 23, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ben Power Alwin talks about his work in the Leslie Feinberg Library at the Sexual Minorities Archives in Holyoke, Tuesday, April 23, 2019. GAZETTE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Buttons are part of the collection at the Sexual Minorities Archives in Holyoke. GAZETTE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Buttons are part of the collection at the Sexual Minorities Archives in Holyoke, Tuesday, April 23, 2019. GAZETTE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Comic books are part of the collection at the Sexual Minorities Archives in Holyoke, Tuesday, April 23, 2019. GAZETTE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Archival bins hold materials on groups and organizations at the Sexual Minorities Archives in Holyoke, Tuesday, April 23, 2019. GAZETTE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sign in the foyer of the Sexual Minorities Archives in Holyoke. GAZETTE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 5/1/2019 9:56:36 AM

When Ben Power Alwin, curator of the Sexual Minorities Archives, moved to the Pioneer Valley in 1979, people would tell him the story of a woman doctor, Amber Starbuck, who lived in the Hilltowns of Hampshire County and would travel on horseback to Northampton and Springfield to treat patients. Sometimes, they said, she would dress as a man.

“We think that she existed,” Alwin recalled people told him, as he sat in an armchair in the living room at the Sexual Minorities Archives in Holyoke, a blush-colored, three-story Victorian that he calls the Pink Lady. Nearly every room of the house is filled with neatly organized books, periodicals, art and other materials relating to LGBTQ history and life from across the country. Alwin, who is a transgender man, lives in the house and is executive director of the Sexual Minorities Educational Foundation, a nonprofit that maintains the archives.

Around 1980, a visitor to the archives, then located in Northampton, gave Alwin a 2-by-2 inch cut out of Mabel Stevens’ obituary, which noted she was the long-term partner of Dr. Amber Starbuck. A quick Google search reveals very little about the two women; Alwin and student interns did most of their research in libraries and historical  societies throughout the Valley, as well as on the genealogy website Ancestry.com.

Smith College Library has a collection devoted to lesbian oral histories, and it is home to the papers of lesbian and bisexual women such as cartoonist and graphic novelist Alison Bechdel. But when it comes to other hyper-local LGBTQ histories, like that of Starbuck and Stevens, “It’s kind of like I’ve had to become a default queer and trans historian because there’s such a void in our own history,” Alwin said as his fluffy white cat, Max, lurked nearby. 

To Alwin, the story of Starbuck and Stevens is as an early example of a LGBTQ-friendly Valley. 

“Most people think, oh, ‘Lesbianville’ started in Northampton in the early-to-mid 1970s,” Alwin said, referencing the idea that the area is a friendly place for lesbians. In 1992, the National Enquirer published an article about Northampton’s large lesbian community. “Welcome to Lesbianville, U.S.A.,” it read, “a bizarre town where so many women love women you can even find them cuddling and kissing on Main Street!”

Alwin is more interested in LGBTQ history before the 1969 uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, which is credited for launching the gay rights movement. Here in the Valley, he is also intent on continuing to discover “what set the environment up for this area to be so lesbian- and queer-friendly,” he said.

Developing the picture

After six years of researching the couple, Alwin now has a more complete picture of Starbuck and Stevens, who both lived in Middlefield in the early-to-mid 1900s, running a health-focused resort that evidently was friendly to same-sex couples during a time when they had few other places to go.

Also somewhat unusual at the time, Starbuck and Stevens were out as a romantic couple, Alwin said: “People in Middlefield knew they were partners.”

Still, “You didn’t have a community. You didn’t have any place to go. So, they built their own place where people could be safe. I love it because it’s kind of what we’re doing in this house, in 2019,” Alwin said, meaning the Pink Lady. “You’ve got to make your own spaces.”

With the help of several interns, Alwin compiled an 88-page history about the lives of Starbuck and Stevens that he shared in a presentation at Forbes Library last month. He will be giving another presentation on his investigation into the two women’s lives on May 3 at the Northampton Community Arts Trust Building as a fundraising event for the Sexual Minorities Archives. 

Research into Starbuck’s and Stevens’ lives is the fourth part of a larger initiative at the archives called “Stories of Our LGBTQ Ancestors.”

Starbuck, born in 1878 in Gill, studied at Boston University to become a medical doctor. In Springfield, she ran a medical practice and also worked as an assistant probation officer, Alwin said.

Although there are gaps in his research, Alwin has a few photos of Starbuck, including one he believes is of the doctor on a horse wearing what appears to be men’s clothing.

Alwin noted that, in the 1880 census, Starbuck’s family marked Starbuck as male. But her parents may have made that designation hoping it would give her more opportunities in life, he theorized. 

While it’s impossible to know for sure how Starbuck saw her own gender, Alwin said it seems likely that she identified as a woman, as she was involved in many women’s groups such as the Zonta Club, a service organization that was made up of women professionals.  

In the 1920s, Starbuck bought a Colonial home on a large property in Middlefield that she opened up as a resort promoting healthy living. She called it the Big House.

Advertisements for the Big House read “Get your party together” and “Swing to Middlefield,” offering hay rides, dining and dancing.

Starbuck is quoted in a 1929 newspaper article explaining her idea, saying, “It is my conviction that there would be fewer nervous breakdown and disorders if the average person could realize that rest and recreation is as necessary to normal good health as food and drink.” Lodging was open to anyone, but judging by photos of the resort featuring what appear to be same-sex couples, Alwin believes it was friendly to LGBTQ people. 

Stevens, born in 1889, drove taxis. She married a man, but they later divorced. A newspaper article about Stevens and her divorce ran with the headline “Woman’s Independence Blamed for Rupture” and cited her husband blaming her independence for the breakup, along with the complaint that she was too busy to put dinner on the table. 

Both Starbuck and Stevens were members of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), and Alwin thinks that the two may have met through the group.

Census information from 1920 shows that Stevens was a boarder in Starbuck’s house in Springfield, and later census information shows they lived on the Big House property together, Alwin said. As Stevens’ obituary notes, the two were partners. Both lived until age 90. “They never separated until Starbuck died,” Alwin said.  

For decades, they ran their Big House, a getaway from city life, complete with fresh air, recreation options like swimming and walking trails and fresh vegetarian food grown in their garden. They even had a restaurant there called The Golden Glow.

“She was a healer,” Alwin said of Starbuck. “And she was like, ‘How can I heal even more people?’ That’s what the Big House was about.”

Helping a hilltown’s economy

In the 1870s, the town of Middlefield, located just west of Worthington, relied on manufacturing. But that changed after wool tariffs, a mill fire, and flooding hurt the town’s economy, according to the town’s website. Middlefield’s economy then shifted toward tourism, with attractions like the Big House. 

The town website also mentions the Big House specifically saying, “There’s reason to believe that the house also served as a retreat for respectable young women who found themselves in the compromising position of being pregnant out of wedlock.” But, there’s no record of that, at least that Alwin has seen, he said.

The current owner of the house, Cherryl Beeman, has kept some of Starbuck’s artifacts, including her medical books and a photo album believed to be hers and filled with snapshots from the 1920s and ’30s at the Big House. 

These photos were key for the researchers, Alwin explained as he held up the book, with its yellowed photos, stored in a second-floor room of the archive near the Leslie Feinberg Library area — a research library of 1,250 books that belonged to the late activist and writer. Some photos show pairs of women, and men, posing together and holding hands.

“I think people met each other there,” Alwin said of the resort’s visitors, “and if they didn’t, they brought each other there as couples. That’s what the photos show.”

Alwin didn’t find much evidence of discrimination against Starbuck and Stevens, only that Starbuck was fired after 30 years as an assistant probation officer, an incident discrimination may have contributed to, he said. He believes that running a successful local business helped Starbuck and Stevens gain respect in the town.

He wants to share the story of Starbuck and Stevens “because there’s a lot of pride in it,” Alwin said. “It’s wonderful — the achievements are amazing that these women accomplished.”

You can see Alwin’s presentation on May 3 at 7 p.m. at the Northampton Community Arts Trust Building, 33 Hawley St.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.

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