The History and Background of Dorothy Molter – The Root Beer Lady
Beautiful landscapes and diverse ecosystems surround the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Wilderness (BWCAW). This area is home to a vast array of plant and animal life, a place uninhabited by most people. Among the few who have lived there, Dorothy Molter, “The Root Beer Lady” was one of the most famous and impactful.
Dorothy was born in 1907 in Pennsylvania. At age seven, she was placed in an orphanage due to her mother’s passing. After some time, her father remarried and reunited the family. They then moved to Chicago in 1919.
In high school, Dorothy excelled at academics and athletics. After graduation, she went on to nursing school. During her early college years, Dorothy took a trip in 1930 to “Knife Lake in the Superior National Forest north of Ely,” and fell in love with the pristine wilderness. Over the next few years, she regularly took trips to the BWCAW area.
In 1934, she helped Bill Berglund with his BWCAW cabins’ upkeep at the Isle of Pines Resort. Her time at the Knife Lake resort was undoubtedly filled with adventure. The four-cabin resort was situated on a relatively remote island and surrounded by rugged wilderness. Dorothy would rarely return to Chicago, only to pick up some work shifts and update her nurse’s certificate.
After working and living at the Isle of Pines Resort, Dorothy became the owner upon Bill Berglund’s passing in 1948. She happily lived there year-round, spending her time fishing, portaging, chopping wood, and of course – brewing root beer. She was well known for her delicious homemade root beers, selling bottles to paddlers and visitors. She was also known as “Nightingale of the Northwoods” and aided hurt paddlers by utilizing her nursing skills and knowledge.
A law passed in 1949, required planes passing over the BWCAW to fly above 4,000 feet. The law also banned planes from landing on lakes within the region (Dorothy Molter Museum). Because of this, supplies had to be paddled from lake to lake. The rugged portages made it hard to carry heavy and bulky items, like soda, to the Isle of Pines Resort. Dorothy took matters into her own hands and decided to start brewing her very own craft root beer.
An estimated 7,000 people traveled every summer to taste the heavenly root beer being brewed on Knife Lake (AtlasObscura.com). The Root Beer Lady used a simple recipe that varied depending on the time of year and temperature. Root beer syrup, yeast, and sugar were combined with cold lake water in a large pot and stirred. The end product was then bottled and stored for thirsty visitors. The root beer was kept in a root beer cooler that was chilled by frozen blocks of lake ice, harvested during the winter.
Dorothy Molter passed away in 1986, leaving behind a lasting wilderness legacy. Though there were hardships and setbacks in her off-grid lifestyle, Dorothy always prevailed with a positive and independent outlook on life.
The Dorothy Molter Museum showcases the fantastic story and life of Dorothy. Located in Ely, Minnesota, visitors can tour her cabins and learn more about her way of life. The Museum is complete with three of her cabins, photographs, and personal belongings. Learn more at https://www.rootbeerlady.com/.
You can also purchase her classic root beer, still brewed with water from Knife Lake. The Duluth Pack flagship store in Duluth, MN sells her famous root beer year-round. In addition, we sell her book, “Dorothy Molter The Root Beer Lady” in-store and online. Next time you stop by, make sure you grab a case of this authentic “Root Beer Lady” root beer!
Happy adventuring, friends!
All images were accessed from the Dorothy Molter Museum website.