Root Beer Lady

My favorite true story set in the BWCAW is about Dorothy Molter. My biggest regret is that while I paddled on Knife Lake in the 80’s I did not meet her or taste her root beer.

Dorothy Louise Molter (May 6, 1907  – December 18, 1986), lived for 56 years on Knife Lake in the Boundary Waters area of northern Minnesota. She was known as “Knife Lake Dorothy” or as the “Root Beer Lady”, as she made root beer and sold it to thousands of passing canoeists in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), near Ely, Minnesota. Various factors combined to give her national prominence, extensive coverage in media, books and documentaries, and tens of thousands of visits by Boundary Waters Canoe Area canoeists.

During the 1970s and 1980s, although her home no longer operated as a resort, visitation to Molter’s islands reached upwards of 5,000-6,000 canoeists each year. Molter spent winters in cabins on the Isle of Pines and summers in a cabin-like multi-layered (canvas) tent on a smaller, satellite island a few dozen yards east of Isle of Pines. She had small, rustic footbridges between the islands, and a fence made of broken canoe paddles donated by visitors. She lived within yards of the US–Canada border.

She grew flowers in an area which is practically all rock and without soil. This required finding and hauling dirt and placing it into decommissioned fishing boats repurposed into planters and gathering wild seeds. Visitors were a “feast or famine” situation for Molter. During the warm months she would receive thousands of visits. Many signed her guest book which, would accumulate over 4,000 signatures in a summer. She began averaging between 6,000 and 7,000 guests per year, often over 100 in a day during the peak summer months of July and August.Winters saw far fewer visitors.

She had no electricity, telephone or utilities. She used portable tanks of bottled propane for cooking and a battery-powered 2-way radio. Her cabin was heated by wood, and the home-made root beer that she sold was cooled by thousands of pounds of ice which were hand cut from the lake in the winter and stored in her old-fashioned (non refrigerated) ice house. Each year the ice lasted at least through August. Although she was technically prohibited from selling root beer after the 1964 Wilderness Act, visitors continued to enjoy her root beer and made “donations”.

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).

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