root beer lady
Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
September 22, 2020 ·  4 min read

‘Root Beer Lady’ Lived Alone in a Million-Acre Wilderness

Dubbed “The Loneliest Woman in America”, the Root Beer Lady was famous in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). Though she lived alone, she was certainly not lonely. This is her incredible life story.

The Root Beer Lady

Dorothy Molter, known in the BWCAW as The Root Beer Lady, lived on the Isle of Pines in Knife Lake from 1934 to 1986. Her home was a 15-mile paddle from the nearest road and another 30 miles from the town of Ely in Minnesota. (1)

For most of that time, she ran a fishing camp at her cabin in the summers and lived in near-complete solitude in the winters. Her nick-name, The Root Beer Lady, however, came from the root beer she made using lakewater and served to the canoers that came by her place. (1)

Her Backstory

Molter first visited the Northwoods from her home in Chicago for the first time in 1930 while on a family fishing trip. She absolutely fell in love with the peace and tranquility of nature there. As the Great Depression took hold of the country, she struggled to find a nursing job in the city. (1)

She went back to the Isle of Pines and began working under Bill Berglund at his fishing camp. He was 30 years older than her, and he told her if she stayed to help him run the camp he would leave her the four-cabin resort. Berglund passed away in 1948, and so Molter took over the camp at the age of 41. (1)

Not Just a Fishing Camp Instructor

Molter quickly gained a wide-spread reputation as “The Nightingale of the Woods”. She was “the first responder of the wilderness” and took care of injured canoers and animals alike. (1) She did several patch-jobs, including removing fish hooks from various body parts and splinting broken bones.

Once she even kept a boy alive who had been struck by lightning until first responders arrived by plane. (1)

Despite all of these accolades, the most curious part about Molter for other people was her lifestyle: A single, unmarried woman living alone in the woods. (1) An unassuming woman, to live alone in the woods meant that she had to be able to do a number of tasks, including (1):

  • Chop wood
  • Haul lakewater
  • Harvest ice in the winter to be used in the summer

She was once quoted saying that she would only marry a man who could catch more fish, chop more wood, or portage heavier loads than she could. Needless to say, she never married. (1)

Read: The Woman Who Lives 200,000 Years in the Past

Preservation Efforts Threatened Her Way of Life

The United States Government began putting in measures to preserve the wilderness of the Northwoods and the BWCAW. In 1952, they stopped allowing floatplanes to the island that she lived on. (1)

Next, The Wilderness Act of 1964 stated that all buildings – businesses and residences – had to be removed from the area. The US Forest Service sent Molter numerous letters ordering her to vacate the premises, all of which she ignored. Though she was forced to close the fishing camp, she obtained special permission to stay on the island with the help of environmentalists, politicians, and the public. (1)

A New Era

Without floatplanes, she was no longer able to bring in the various bottled drinks that she used to have for the paddlers who came by. Ever an innovator, she began to make her own out of lakewater. (1)

She bought the flavoring syrup from the Ely A&W and the local Boy Scout Base. She then blended it with sugar and yeast for carbonation. Having nowhere to dispose of the hundreds of glass bottles she had collected over the years, she cleaned and used those bottles for her root beer. (1)

She didn’t do it all completely without help. Often friends and family members came to the island to help Molter brew the drink, and they even had “ice cutting parties” in the winter to help her fully stock the icebox for the following summer. Legally not allowed to operate an official business, she instead asked for a small donation from every person who had a bottle. (1)

The drink wasn’t always consistent in flavor, but the novelty of purchasing it from The Root Beer Lady was enough to attract paddlers to go through 12,000 bottles of it every summer. (1)

Read: 103-Year-Old Runner Nicknamed “Hurricane” Wins Yet Another Gold in 100-Meter Dash

The Dorothy Molter Museum

Despite requests from friends and family to come live in the city as she aged, she lived out the rest of her life on her island. She occasionally visited family in Chicago during the winter, but otherwise, she stayed where she was. (1)

She passed away at her cabin in 1986, a group who named themselves “Dorothy’s Angels” started the big project of moving her cabin home to Ely to make a museum in her honor. They completed the task over winter with the help of primarily the local boy scouts on dog sleds. (1)

Still operational, the Dorothy Molter Museum provides a taste of her life and former fishing camp for visitors, and of course of her sweet, bubbly root beer. (1)

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