Dorothy Molter approximately aged 79 sitting on a bench smiling and wearing a blue, floral shirt

Dorothy Molter

Nestled in a quiet grove of pines, just outside of Ely, Minnesota, are the cabins and museum of one of the north wood’s dearest and most colorful individuals, Dorothy Molter. Some remember her fondly as the “Root Beer Lady” while others recall her as the “Nightingale of the Wilderness” or, simply, Dorothy.

Dorothy carved out her legacy in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) located within the Superior National Forest. Dorothy lived on the Isle of Pines on Knife Lake for more than 56 years where she paddled, hiked, fished, skied and snowshoed this pristine area, until her death in 1986. She was visited by as many as 7,000 people a year.

Bill Berglund and Dorothy aged about 30 years old, with Nebs, the dog standing on the porch of a cabin

Bill Berglund and Dorothy with Nebs, the dog

Dorothy was 23 when she first visited Knife Lake in the Superior National Forest north of Ely, Minnesota, in 1930. She came to stay on a more regular basis in 1934 to help Bill Berglund who owned and operated the Isle of Pines Resort. Dorothy spent a lot of her time there, returning a portion of some winters to the Chicago area to pick up holiday hospital shifts for extra income and to maintain her nursing certification.

When Bill passed away in 1948, Dorothy became the owner of the resort. She operated the Isle of Pines Resort from 1948 until her death in 1986.

In the winter, Dorothy would live in the winter cabin, located on the east end of the largest of the three islands. It was during the winter months that she would often express her creative side and make crafts, decorations and gifts. In the spring, she would move over to the summer island and live in a tent cabin, renting out the winter cabin, along with the Trapper cabin, the Point cabin, and the Cady cabin located on another small island.  As more visitors donated broken paddles, it wasn’t long before there were brightly painted paddle fences everywhere. Dorothy did have one rule: the paddles had to be broken and unusable (though many were sawed in half just for the honor of being placed on her fences).

Due to the Wilderness Act, Dorothy’s property was condemned and purchased by the United States government. She was informed she would no longer be allowed to live on Isle of Pines or rent the cabins as a resort and was ordered to leave the area. Her many friends circulated petitions in order that she would be allowed to remain. She was granted lifetime tenancy in 1972 and as a result was able to stay until her death in December 1986.

Learn more about Dorothy’s story with Dorothy Molter, The Root Beer Lady. A biographical book featuring photos, historic quotes and letters, and Dorothy’s Christmas letters (abridged).

Thanks to Pat Surface and Spiritwood Music for putting together this fabulous slideshow of Dorothy Molter photos.