Dorothy Molter

Dorothy Molter
The Dorothy Molter cabin in Ely

Dorothy Louise Molter (May 6, 1907 in Arnold, Pennsylvania - December 1986), lived for 56 years on Knife Lake in the Boundary Waters area of northern Minnesota. She was known as "Knife Lake Dorothy" or as the "Root Beer Lady", as she made root beer and sold it to thousands of passing canoeists in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), near Ely, Minnesota.




Molter lived with her parents Mattie and John "Cap" Molter in Pennsylvania until her mother died when she was in second grade. She lived with her five brothers and sisters in a Cincinnati orphanage until 1919 when her father remarried and was able to provide a home for them in Garrett, Indiana. Later, they moved to Chicago. In 1927, she enrolled for nurse's training at Auburn Park Hospital.[1]


In 1930 Molter first visited and helped at the Isle of Pines resort which became her home starting in 1934.[2] The Isle of Pines resort consisted of rustic cabins located on the Isle of Pines island and an adjacent island on Knife Lake in Northern Minnesota, yards from the Canadian border. It was owned and operated by Bill Berglund. Molter became the owner of the lodge in 1948 when Berglund died. She was a trained nurse and would often treat people for minor injuries. Molter would only leave occasionally to visit family in Chicago or to take additional education in Chicago to maintain her nursing license. After Berglund's death she lived there alone until her death in 1986.[1]

Evolution of the BWCAW

Molter's life, and her place in the public eye was significantly influenced by the evolution of the area where she lived into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Up until the mid/late 1940s, the story of the Isle of Pines resort was typical of many north woods resorts. It was reachable by seaplanes, and by motorboats, the latter when the boat was small enough and the gumption of the traveler high enough to carry the boat and motor over land at the portages. Later it was reached by snowmobiles, as they came into use. Her location evolved into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Changes that impacted her occurred during the period of 1948 through 1984. The BWCAW became the largest US wilderness east of the Mississippi (almost 1 million acres (4,000 km2), 2 million if one includes the adjacent Quetico Provincial Park in Canada) and the most popular canoe area in the USA. This evolution near-eliminated motorized transportation in this area, removed other residences, buildings, business and (the few) roads from the wilderness, eventually leaving her as the only full time resident in a canoe wilderness area three times the size of Rhode Island. At the same time that these changes "moved" her even farther from civilization, they brought tens of thousands of canoeist visitors to her home. These factors contributed to the interest in and endearment of her, including print media and television coverage during the last 34 years of her life.[1]

A few of the relevant mileposts of the evolution into the BWCA include[1]:

  • In 1948 the landing of float planes was prohibited, with enforcement starting 2–3 years after that.[1]
  • Efforts to remove her from her Knife lake location began in 1948.[1]
  • In 1964 the Federal Wilderness Act was passed. This defined wilderness as a place where people do not live, and included the area where Molter lived. In that same year condemnation proceedings taking away her ownership of the lodge were completed. Following public outcry it was decided that she (and Benny Ambrose on Ottertrack Lake) could stay until 1975. [1]
  • In 1975 Dorothy and Benny were was appointed as Forest Service "volunteers in service". This marked the beginning a period during which the Forest Service began assisting Molter.[1]
  • Benny Ambrose died in 1982 leaving Molter as the last full time resident of the almost 2-million-acre (8,100 km2) BWCA / Quetico wilderness.[1]
  • In 1978 the BWCAW act was passed, including a ban on snowmobiles and motorboats in her area effective 1984.[1]

Later years

During the 1970s and 1980s, although her home no longer operated as a lodge, Molter began to be visited by thousands of canoeists per year. Molter spent winters in cabins on the Isle of Pines and summers in a cabin-like multi-layered tent on a smaller island a few dozen yards east of Isle of Pines. She had a small rustic pier between the islands, and a fence made of broken canoe paddles donated by visitors. She lived within yards of the US/Canadian border.

She grew flowers in an area which is practically all rock and no dirt. This required finding and hauling dirt and placing it into planters, and gathering wild seeds.[3] Visitors were a "feast or famine" situation for Molter. During the warm months she would receive thousands of visits. Most signed her guest book which would accumulate over 4,000 signatures in a summer. Winters saw few visitors.

She 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 home-made 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. Each year the ice lasted at least through August. During her final years, she was technically prohibited from selling root beer, but visitors continued to enjoy her root beer and make "donations".

With the passage of legislation extending the wilderness protections of the BWCAW, she was told she would have to leave. Due to an outpouring of support, this was relaxed,[2] and she became one of the few (and last) allowed to live in the BWCAW until she died in 1986, in solitude on the island where she had spent most of her life.

One early article on her was the October 1952 Saturday Evening Post Article, "The Loneliest Woman in America" by Andrew Hamilton.[1] While the title was not literally true, the term caught on. As Molter once observed, "If I had been the loneliest woman in America, by the time all of those writers and TV people came up here, I sure as heck wouldn't have been" [1] However, through a combination of her remote location and BWCAW wilderness restrictions against motors and motorized travel, Molter's home was amongst the most isolated in the country. It typically took approximately 1½ days of travel from her home to reach the nearest road, and her home was approximately 36 miles (58 km) from the nearest small town.

Media and documentary coverage

From 1952 until her passing in 1986 Molter was the subject of ongoing media and documentary coverage. To name a few, her life was the subject of a biography entitled "The Root Beer Lady" by Bob Cary of Ely.[1] She was also the subject of National Geographic publications, a broadcast of the "Real People" television series, and of a documentary video "Dorothy Molter - Living in the Boundary Waters".[3]

Cabins and museum

After Molter's death, her cabins were dismantled and moved to Ely, as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act of 1978 banned permanent residences and structures within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Everything had to be carried out by snowmobile as there were no roads. Time was of the essence as the Forest Service was directed to burn her cabins down by a certain date. Her residence was re-erected on the east side of Ely, Minnesota on a site near the Chamber of Commerce building and then removed to the Dorothy Molter Museum, which is on the east end of Ely on Route 169 (Sheridan St.) [4]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m "The Root Beer Lady" by Bob Cary of Ely. ISBN 0-938586-68-8 Published in 1992 by Pfeifer-Hamilton.
  2. ^ a b History section of Dorothy Molter museum web Site
  3. ^ a b "Dorothy Molter - Living in the Boundary Waters" 42 Minute Documentary Video by Judith Hadel and Wade Black
  4. ^ Dorothy Molter Museum Web Site

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