As part of the decades-long process of creating what is now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, President Truman issued an executive order in 1949 prohibiting planes from landing on the lakes and from flights below 4,000 feet over the area. This flight ban put Dorothy in a difficult spot as planes were her main method of bringing in supplies to her resort.
However, the ban didn’t really affect Dorothy until 1952. Up until that point, rogue pilots continued to fly supplies up to her as a form of protest. It wasn’t until a local pilot’s plane was confiscated and impounded that the renegade trips ended and Dorothy had to make choices about her amenities.
Large amounts of heavy supplies were extremely difficult to haul over portages; therefore, only essential items needed to run the resort were obtained. Crates of soda pop in glass bottles were, of course, a pleasure not a necessity.
Dorothy was undeterred by the limitations imposed on her and faced this challenge head-on with tenacity. Already having a multitude of empty glass soda pop bottles on her islands, it seemed logical to reuse them for homemade root beer.
Using root beer syrup (either from the Ely A&W, the grocery store or ordered in bulk through the Boy Scout Base), sugar and yeast, Dorothy took the clear, cold water from Knife Lake to home-brew her very own root beer. Her recipe was not a secret (and is available at the museum) but the end product did have tendency to vary. The carbonation came from the yeast processing, or fermenting, the sugar, thus creating bubbles. Dorothy’s recipe called for the bottles to “sit” and ferment for three days up to two weeks depending on the temperatures.
However, in the peak summer months on hot, busy days, root beer demand was high and the production process couldn’t keep up. Although the consistency of her root beer was sometimes off depending on the length of fermentation time or how long it cooled in the ice house, visitors to her island were often paddlers who had been camping for days and rejoiced in the opportunity to drink something other than iodine-flavored lake water.
The popularity of Dorothy’s root beer, combined with her notoriety stemming from her public dispute with the U.S. Forest Service, made her into a celebrity of the Northwoods and received the moniker “The Root Beer Lady.”
The demand for her root beer grew each year to the point she had to enlist the help of friends and relatives to keep up. Occasionally, the demand for root beer became so great Dorothy had to limit the number of root beers each visitor could get.
Between 1976 and 1986 Dorothy and her helpers brewed an average of over 10,000 bottles of root beer per summer.
Today, the Dorothy Molter Museum coordinates the brewing of “Dorothy’s Isle of Pines Root Beer,” which is sold at the museum as well as businesses in Ely, Virginia, Duluth/North Shore, North Central Minnesota and the Twin Cities of Minnesota – and online! The recipe isn’t the same as Dorothy’s – we aren’t allowed to use Knife Lake water – but it is close and, some might say, tastier.