Sweet treat: Play explores life of Boundary Waters' 'Root Beer Lady'

A women in acting in a play
Playwright and actor Kim Schultz portrays Dorothy Molter, as well as others, in her one woman show about the last legal, non-Indigenous resident of the Boundary Waters.
Jacob Aloi | MPR News

Updated: 11:22 a.m.

At a rehearsal for “The Root Beer Lady” at History Theatre, playwright and performer Kim Schultz stands on stage as one of Minnesota’s larger-than-life folk heroines. A sign reads “limit two root beers.” 

“Root Beer, yes, yes, that’s probably what you’re all waiting for,” Schultz says. “I made homemade root beer.”  

Through her words and performance, Schultz conjures up the spirit of Dorothy Molter, the last legal non-Indigenous resident of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  

Schultz was drawn to Molter’s story after learning about her while visiting Minnesota. 

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Dorothy Molter
This picture of Dorothy Molter hangs in the Dorothy Molter Museum in Ely, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

“I visited her museum, which is up in Ely and was immediately connected to this woman who really broke all the norms of her time and went up to the middle of nowhere and chose to live her life there,” Schultz said.

Schultz has been developing the play over several years, and after COVID-19 affected live performances, she performed a virtual reading of the show for History Theatre in 2021.  

Now she is onstage performing the one-woman show.  

According to director Addie Gorlin-Han, the production has been a collaborative experience.  

“Kim is really, really good about separating herself as playwright and performer,” says Gorlin-Han. “[She] is pretty magical at being able to separate the two of those.” 

Gorlin-Han also connects to Molter’s story, having explored the Boundary Waters in her youth.  

“I was one of the first women at Camp Mishawaka to pass the expert boys canoeing class,” Gorlin-Han says. “I think the thing that drew me most to this production is the fact that it's about a young woman who knows what she wants. She was a trailblazer; she felt a calling and she went for it.” 

A sign on the set of a play
A sign on the set of "The Root Beer Lady" at the History Theatre. The Root Beer Lady begins previews Thursday in St. Paul and runs through Feb. 19.  
Jacob Aloi | MPR News

Beyond the Root Beer Lady 

Dorothy Molter first visited the Northwoods in 1930 on a fishing trip, and eventually became a resident of what is now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.  

She stayed until her death in the winter of 1986. For many years, she also ran the Isle of Pines Resort. It was there that she made root beer from lake water that she sold to canoers looking for a sweet treat.  

Jess Edberg, executive director of the Dorothy Molter Museum, said Molter was also a valuable resource for canoers during her lifetime. 

“Dorothy was a trained nurse — she was on track to be a nurse before she came up here to the Northwoods” Edberg says. “[She] provided emergency medical services in the wilderness for hundreds, if not thousands of people.” 

Edberg also added that Molter had to buck many social norms of the time. Journalists who came to write about her often asked the same question: “Why aren’t you married?” 

Root beer ingredients
Dorothy Molter brewed her own brand of root beer from scratch using ingredients such as those pictured here.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

“Eventually, she just [said], ‘Look, when I can find a man who can chop more wood, portage heavier loads or catch more fish, I'll marry him.’” Edberg says.

Molter never married.  

Kim Schultz crafted her play to go beyond the legend of the Root Beer Lady and get at who Dorothy Molter was as a person.  

“She was called ‘the loneliest woman in America.’ And I thought, was she?” Schultz says. “I started thinking about that, and what her legacy is and what she might want her legacy to be.”  

Schultz says a line in the show that echoes that question: 

“If anybody wants to remember me after I’m gone, I hope they’ll remember me for all the various kinds of help I’ve given them through the years. Because that’s how I’m going to remember them.”  

The Root Beer Lady begins previews Thursday at the History Theatre in St. Paul and runs through Feb 19.  

Correction (Jan. 26, 2023): A previous audio version of this story used the wrong last name for Katharine Horowitz. It has been updated.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.