Dorothy Molter “The Root Beer Lady”

March 21, 2012 by
Dorothy Molter
Your Stories

Recently, WYSK was contacted by the Dorothy Molter Museum to share the story of Dorothy Molter with us. Known as the “Root Beer Lady” and the “Nightingale of the Wilderness”, Dorothy was the last living legal resident of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, just outside of Ely, Minnesota. Here’s her amazing story.

An ice-cold glass of root beer and a warm welcome greeted weary paddlers who stopped at the Isle of Pines to meet Dorothy Molter, the courageous, independent woman who became a North Woods legend.

Dorothy lived on the Isle of Pines on Knife Lake for more than 56 years where she paddled, hiked, fished, skied, snow-shoed, and made and sold root beer, until her death in 1986. She was visited by as many as 7,000 people a year.

Born on May 6, 1907, in Arnold, Pennsylvania, Dorothy was one of six children born to Mattie and John “Cap” Molter.  When Dorothy was seven, her mother passed away and Dorothy, along with her siblings, were placed in an orphanage in Cincinnati until her father remarried in 1919 and moved to Chicago, at which time he reunited the family.

After attending high school, Dorothy chose a career in nursing. Dorothy was 23 when she first visited Knife Lake in the Superior National Forest north of Ely, Minnesota, in 1930. She came to stay in 1934 to care for Bill Berglund who owned and operated the Isle of Pines Resort. Dorothy spent almost all of her time there, only returning to the Chicago area to attend classes required to maintain her nursing certification. When Bill passed away in 1948, she became the owner of the resort and operated the Isle of Pines Resort from 1948 to 1975.

Root Beer LableDorothy had no electricity, telephone or utilities. She used portable tanks of bottled propane for cooking and a battery powered radio. Her cabin was heated by wood, and the homemade root beer that she sold was cooled by thousands of pounds of ice, which were hand cut from the lake in the winter and stored in her old-fashioned (non-refrigerated) ice house. During her final years, she was prohibited from legally selling her root beer, but visitors continued to enjoy her special brew and make “donations” for the pleasure of doing so.

With the passage of legislation extending the wilderness protections of the Wilderness Act of 1964, Dorothy’s property was condemned and purchased by the U.S. government. She was no longer allowed to rent the cabins as a resort, no longer allowed to live on Isle of Pines and was ordered to leave the area. Her many friends came out in support and circulated petitions in order that she would be allowed to remain. Do to this outpouring support, she was granted lifetime tenancy in 1975 and became one of the last people allowed to live in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where she stayed until her death in December 1986.

The Dorothy Molter Memorial Foundation was formed to preserve and interpret her legacy. Dorothy’s homestead was dismantled in 1987 and transported by dogsled and snowmobile to Moose Lake, and then on to Ely where volunteers restored two of her cabins. So, next time you are in the area, stop by the Museum where the root beer is always cold and Dorothy’s story lives on.


For more information:
Visit Dorothy Molter Museum
Root Beer Lady: The Story of Dorothy Molter by Bob Cary

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