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I have a fascination with people who hear a different drummer and manage to live their lives in accordance with the music that maybe only they can hear. The root beer lady is one of those characters, meant in the most respectful way. Dorothy Molter was known as “the root beer lady.” She lived alone in a cabin on an island in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) wilderness year round her entire adult life.

She was born in 1907 and her mother died when she was seven. She spent time in an orphanage and when her father remarried in 1919 he reunited the family. Dorothy got a nursing degree. The Dorothy Molter Museum has much more.

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, Dorothy became the owner of the resort. She operated the Isle of Pines Resort from 1948 to 1975.

Dorothy also made homemade root beer. Her cabin on Knife Lake was a must stop for paddlers. Her famous gardens were surrounded by fences made of broken paddles. The paddles had to be broken to qualify for the fence. I went by her place in the early sixties on my first trip into the BWCA with a church youth group. I know we contributed one broken paddle to her fence and enjoyed her root beer. I was too young then to realize I was meeting a legend. It didn’t even strike me as odd that a woman would be living on an island in the wilderness and serving homemade root beer. Clueless. I know she put stitches in a canoeist from another group there at the same time.

Due to the Wilderness Act, Dorothy’s property was condemned and purchased by the United States government. She was informed she would no longer be allowed to live on Isle of Pines or rent the cabins as a resort and was ordered to leave the area. Her many friends circulated petitions in order that she would be allowed to remain. She was granted lifetime tenancy in 1975 and as a result was able to stay until her death in December 1986.

Dorothy had a summer cabin and a winter cabin, both of which were dismantled after she died and moved to a museum on the outskirts of Ely. There are a couple videos of her story in the local library. Her nieces and nephews helped her wash the bottles and make the root beer.

Her summers were filled with all the paddlers who stopped to buy root beer and visit or get nursing care. In the winter she had a ham radio and supplies were delivered by planes landing on the ice. Dog sledders stopped by in the winter. In many ways she lived a simple life in a remote place but she was anything but anti-social. It says a lot about her network of friends and family that her cabins became a museum and that she is something of a folk hero in these parts. She found a place that called to her heart and lived her life on her own terms. I admire anyone who can so live a good life on their own terms.

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