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. This is her story.
The Early Years
Dorothy Louise Molter was born May 6th, 1907, in Arnold, Pennsylvania, as one of six children born to Mattie and John “Cap” Molter. When she was seven, Dorothy’s mother died and her father was forced to separate the children into pairs to stay with relatives so he could continue to work as a police captain for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Eventually, Cap gathered the children together and moved west to Ohio where the children lived in an orphanage in Cincinnati until 1919 when Cap remarried and he moved the whole family to south Chicago.
Dorothy was a good student who was very active in sports including volleyball, basketball, tennis and swimming. In 1924, she won the Chicago citywide championship while on the girl’s intramural rifle shooting team – a skill that came in handy later in life.
Dorothy’s path didn’t follow that of the traditional gender role of her time. When she graduated high school in 1927, she chose to attend nursing school rather than get married, settle down and have children, which was typically expected.
She attended nursing school at Auburn Park Hospital (located at 78th Place, between Normal Ave and Eggleson Ave) in Chicago, IL and based on Dorothy’s nursing school scrapbook she was fond of the doctors, nurses and fellow students in the program. This scrapbook is on display at the Museum and holds precious photo collages, newspaper clippings and mementos emphasizing how much this time in school meant to her.
On a school break in 1930, she accompanied her stepmother, father, uncle and one of her father’s co-workers on a fishing trip to northeastern MN and immediately fell in love with the Northwoods. The party stayed at the Isle of Pines on Knife Lake, a rustic fishing camp built and owned by Bill Berglund.
Dorothy graduated nursing school that fall (September 1930) during the height of the great depression, which made it difficult to secure full-time work in Chicago. After passing both her nursing board tests on July 23 & 24, 1931, she returned to Knife Lake. Over the next several summers she worked at the Isle of Pines Resort. In 1934, Bill asked her if she would like to stay on a more permanent basis and work for him.
An independent thinker from early on, when given the opportunity to stay and work at the resort full-time, she again flouted conventions, even at the disapproval of her family. Bill was 33 years Dorothy’s senior and suffered from diabetes and heart-related health problems. Dorothy provided the much-needed assistance to run the camp. Bill promised her that upon his death, she would inherit the property. Many people in the region knew of Dorothy because of her root beer, but just as many knew her for her kindness, generosity and willingness to help others. Her training as a nurse was widely known amongst travelers to the wilderness and her location was pointed out on maps by outfitters to their vacationing clients heading into the lake country.
Over the years, Dorothy would ensure her nursing skills stayed sharp and in compliance with current training requirements. She would often take time to recertify in any training during her annual visits to Chicago over the Christmas holiday.
She would administer to many, many visitors who were in need of first aid, including tending to wildlife such as Vera the crow pictured here with Dorothy on the Isle of Pines of Knife Lake.
Dorothy’s root beer is perhaps the most well-known facet of her history. She began making it in the early 1950s after a 1949 flight ban over the Superior Roadless Area forced her to import all supplies over land and water. By reusing old glass pop bottles (she kept them stacked by a shed) and a very basic recipe, she brewed and bottled thousands of batches of her “Isle of Pines” root beer annually, which she sold to guests and canoeists who stopped by.
Her medical skills plus her homemade root beer became widely known and, despite her geographic isolation, Dorothy gradually became one of the most celebrated and well-known residents of the Northwoods and often referred to as the “Nightingale of the Wilderness” or, more commonly, “The Root Beer Lady.”
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 this time, when it was dark by early evening, 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.
Due to the 1964 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 to allow her to stay. The USFS allowed her a temporary lease to stay on her islands but the 1964 Act did not allow for her to operate as a resort any longer.
Showing her ingenuity, Dorothy kept her resort reservations and rather than collecting payment as a “business” simply set out donation jars. Guests and visitors continued to come, and she was able to generate a modest income. In 1972, the USFS granted her lifetime tenancy and as a result, was able to stay until her death in December 1986.
Dorothy was a model of independent thinking, and her story encourages us to think for ourselves. Today, we can look back at how the sociopolitical history of America during Dorothy’s lifetime influenced and challenged Dorothy’s own path in life and imagine her as a person, rather simply an historic figure.
The transition from the Victorian Era at the turn of the 20th century, women’s suffrage, two world wars, and women’s employment were only a few of the profound points of reference on Dorothy’s timeline – no doubt significantly affecting her as a woman living through those changing times. She once said, “If I can ever find a man who can portage heavier loads, chop more wood, or catch more fish, then I’ll marry him.” Apparently, no one ever met her criteria.
It is a part of Dorothy’s story that isn’t emphasized as much as the physical life she had on Knife Lake, but understanding this part of the story, the development of Dorothy as a strong, independent woman, gives new life and relevance to it today.
This is especially true for young people who visit the Dorothy Molter Museum; her legacy encourages them to follow their own path even if it’s not what others would choose for them.
Learn more about Dorothy Molter through the lens of those who knew her. Download the transcripts of 10 oral histories from friends of Dorothy’s.
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).