July 20, 2018
Dorothy Molter lived life on her terms. Women in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s didn’t have many options – homemaker, secretary, teacher, nurse. She became a nurse but chose to spend her life, mostly alone, on what is now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota.
Dorothy, the third of six children, was born on May 6, 1907 in Arnold, Pennsylvania. Her mother died during childbirth in 1915. To keep the children together, her father placed them in an orphanage in Cincinnati, Ohio. When he remarried, the family reunited and eventually settled in Chicago, Illinois.
Dorothy was an excellent student, graduating from high school in 1927. She enrolled in nursing school, graduated in September 1930, and passed her boards in July 1931. She was ready for “women’s work”. But things didn’t go quite like they usually did for young girls of that time.
Her family took a summer trip to the Isle of Pines Resort on Knife Lake in 1930. The resort was run by Bill Berglund. It was love at first sight – of the north woods not Bill. She spent the next several summers working at the resort, returning to Chicago during the winters where she worked as a nurse to earn money.
In 1934, Bill offered her the chance to work at the resort full-time, promising that she would inherit the property when he died. She jumped at it and he kept his word. He left no will but his children knew his wishes so Dorothy did in fact inherit the island when he died in 1948 and continued to run the resort after his death.
Word got out about this woman running a resort way out in the wilderness with no phone, no roads, and no man to do things for her. The Saturday Evening Post picked up on it and ran an article about her in the October 18, 1952 issue titled “The Loneliest Woman in America.” Read on and see if you agree with that title.
Running the resort was not a job for the faint of heart or weak of muscle. The work was hard; the weather could be harsh. Dorothy lived there year round. She traveled by canoe in the summer and by snowmobile after the lakes froze. She spent part of the winter chopping huge chunks of ice out of the lake and storing it for the long summer. As the government started to regulate the Boundary Waters and move people out, their new laws affected Dorothy’s life and livelihood. First, motorized boats were banned but float planes still brought in essential supplies and some luxuries, like bottled root beer, that Dorothy sold to guests and other visitors.
That option ended in 1949 when the federal government banned float planes from the wilderness area. After that, in order to bring in supplies, she had to canoe fifteen miles by water and cross five portages (each way), which meant carrying her canoe and all those supplies from one take out spot to the next put in spot. No more bottled root beer.
But people flocked to her island in search of ice cold root beer and she still had thousands of empty pop bottles, so she decided to make and sell her own root beer. She produced up to 12,000 bottles of root beer each year, earning her the nickname, “The Root Beer Lady.”
Yet another law went into effect and Dorothy was no longer able to legally rent out the cabins at her resort. But her regular guests refused to stop coming so she went to a donation basis and made more money than she did when she set the rent. And still, thousands of people a year would paddle out to her island to relax, chat… and buy an ice cold root beer. Sometimes she had over 100 guests a day. In 1955, she started tracking how many visitors she had in spiral-bound notebooks. Over the next 30 years more than 130,000 visitors from all over the world signed her log books. “The Loneliest Woman in America?” I think not.
In 1964 her land was threatened with condemnation as a result of federal wilderness legislation. The government was besieged with letters, phone calls, and petitions supporting her. Because of this outpouring of support, the government relented and allowed her to stay on her land. She was now the last non-indigenous person living in the boundary waters wilderness area.
Dorothy had become a local legend just by doing what she loved. She died of a heart attack at her home on the Isle of Pines in 1986. She was still hauling water, chopping ice, canoing the lakes and portaging hundreds of pounds right up until she died at 79 years old.
If you ever get out to Ely, Minnesota, plan to visit to the Dorothy Molter Museum (http://www.rootbeerlady.com/). The museum has several cabins from her resort, including the one she lived in, furnished the way she had it. And you can buy Dorothy Molter Root Beer made just the way she made it for so many years… except they don’t use fresh, cold Knife Lake water anymore. Chloe gave the root beer two thumbs up.
And check out the paddles. One quirky custom involves canoe paddles. Paddles sometimes break. Dorothy was good at recycling everything so she decided broken paddles made for a good fence. People saw her fence and starting bringing their broken paddles to her. Eventually, people began painting, decorating, and signing the paddles. It didn’t take long before she had quite a collection. Many of the original paddles are hanging in one of the cabins at the museum. There is a binder there with letters showing her struggle with the government to keep her land and a photo on the wall with a famous visitor – a young Julia Roberts. The displays are very good and they have a little video of Dorothy being interviewed a few years before her death.
J & H