The Dorothy Molter Museum in Ely celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, telling the story of the last, full-time resident of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. For more than half a century the "Root Beer Lady," as she became known, defied the government to live alone, on an island, 15 miles from the nearest road.
Dorothy Molter first visited what would become the Boundary Waters in 1930, as a 23-year-old nurse, on a fishing trip with her dad. When she died, in the winter of 1986, she was revered across the country for defying the conventions of her era, standing up to the government, and for doling out hot soup and cold root beer to thousands of visitors every year.
"Even today, we get letters from people who are just inspired by her life choices," said Sarah Guy-Levar, executive director of the Dorothy Molter Museum in Ely. After Molter died in 1986, nearly 1,000 people drove snowmobiles to her cabins on Knife Lake for a memorial service.
"As they went through they realized, what is going to happen to her cabins? What happened to everyone else's? They would be burned," said museum tour guide JoAnn Bird. So a group of people known as "Dorothy's Angels," who had snowmobiled and canoed in supplies to Molter for decades, made plans for one final, grand portage. That winter they deconstructed and carried out Molter's cabins, first by dogsled, then by snowmobile, eventually got put back together 35 miles away in Ely. In 1993 those buildings became the Dorothy Molter Museum.
"It's amazing what they did. The herculean effort this small group of people took to create this museum, to bring two and a half buildings out initially by dog team, to reassemble them all with volunteer labor, people who were not museum professionals," Guy-Levar said.
Now the museum is charged with sharing Molter's history. Board member and retired teacher Sherry Abts says her story is especially powerful for young girls.
"Dorothy bucked all the odds, she was a city girl, she was not supposed to come way up in the wilderness, she hunted and could shoot and hunt and fish better than any guy that she said she met," Abts said.
Molter took over the resort she worked at on Knife Lake in 1949. The Forest Service had just begun buying out private property in the area. Tour guide JoAnn Bird said it was part of a longstanding plan to create a wilderness area.
"So they get to Dorothy. 'Hey Dorothy, we'll give you $3,000 dollars for Isle of the Pines.' And Dorothy said, 'You are crazy. It's $100,000, it's worth that," Bird said.
"She is what I call a holdout," said fellow tour guide Edye Ruoho.
"In the bedroom on the left we have the documentation from the Forest Service that lasted all the way up into 1964," Bird said. "Dear Ms Molter, we tried to get a hold of you..."
In reply: "Dear Forest Service, I will not accept your offer, I will not leave, I want to stay and you're giving me too low of a price," Ruoho said.
The same year Molter acquired the resort, float planes were banned from the Boundary Waters, the first of several motorized restrictions. That ended the delivery of cases of soda pop. So, she began making her own root beer, eventually brewing 12,000 bottles a summer. For decades thereafter canoeists knew her as the "Root Beer Lady."
"I used to go in there and have a cup of coffee, and these canoers would come in. 'Oooh, that root beer, it's the greatest pop,'" recalls one of Molter's longtime friends, David DuFresne, telling her. But he remembers the refreshment as less enjoyable.
"It's the most horrible stuff I ever tasted! It was terrible. But you can't tell those kids that, who had been in the woods a week. Anything would probably taste good," DuFresne said with a laugh.
For the next dozen years Molter brewed root beer and stonewalled the government. In 1964 Congress passed legislation creating the Boundary Waters wilderness. Shortly after that, a newspaper columnist named Bob Cary visited her.
"He walked into her cabin and saw her sitting at her table reduced to tears, because the federal government had written her the final letter saying if you don't sell we are going to condemn your property, and at that point she was pretty low, pretty devastated," Guy-Levar said. Cary wrote a column detailing Molter's plight. He dubbed her "The Nightingale of the Boundary Waters." The government was flooded with petitions, demanding the Root Beer Lady be allowed to stay, and a compromise was brokered. Molter was hired by the Forest Service. And she was allowed to live out her life on her beloved Knife Lake.
"How often does an individual fight the federal government and actually come out on top?" Sarah Guy-Levar.
Answer? Not real often.