Root beer maverick: How one little, old lady battled the harsh Minnesota wilderness & made root beer for thousands

Dorothy Molter was the last last legal non-indigenous resident of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness // Photo by Dale Swenson, courtesy of the Dorothy Molter Museum

Until 1986, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was home to hundreds of wild species, including moose, beavers, bears, bobcats, bald eagles—and one little, old lady named Dorothy Molter.

Molter was the last legal non-indigenous resident of the BWCAW. She operated a resort that became a legendary destination in one of the most remote parts of Minnesota. She was a nurse by training, but a true adventurer in spirit. She lived without electricity or running water, leaving the safety of the civilized world for a life of beauty and hardship.

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In 1930, Molter was training to be a nurse in Chicago when she joined her father on a fishing trip to the Isle of Pines Resort on Knife Lake. She instantly fell in love with northern Minnesota and over the next several summers, she traveled back to those same rustic cabins to help the resort’s owner, Bill Berglund. When Berglund died in 1948, Molter became the official owner of the Isle of Pines Resort.

The U.S. Forest Service was desperate to buy Molter’s property. There was a great deal of pressure from environmental groups to turn Minnesota’s northern wilds into a protected park. In 1949, President Truman issued an executive order banning planes from the Superior National Forest area to protect the region’s fisheries from fly-in fisherman. While that made it difficult to resupply the resort, Molter didn’t budge.

“She always refused to sell,” says Sarah Guy-Levar, executive director for the Dorothy Molter Museum in Ely, Minnesota. “A few years would pass and they’d offer her more money. Then they’d offer a little less money but offer her tenancy. […] No. She was not interested in selling.”

Dorothy Molter at her Isle of Pines Resort on Knife Lake // Photo courtesy of Dorothy Molter Museum

Molter continued to live on Knife Lake until 1964 when the government passed the Wilderness Act, a national mandate that protected over nine million acres of federal land, including the area that became known as the BWCAW. Within that swath of protected land, of course, was Molter’s resort. When the law passed, Molter was officially forced to sell her land, but she’d be damned if the pipe-smoking bureaucrats in Washington D.C. were going to drive her from her home.

When Molter first visited Knife Lake, guests and supplies were brought in via prop planes. After President Truman’s ban, Molter’s resort felt more isolated. The nearest road was 12 miles and five portages from Molter’s front door. Even snowmobiles were eventually banned in the 1980s. The only way Molter could replenish her supplies was to portage them in herself.

“It wasn’t uncommon for her to take trips into town with two canoes and 13 packs,” says Guy-Levar. “She would have to make multiple trips across the portages. She was a crazy tough chick.”

One of the biggest sacrifices for Molter was soda. In her early days, she had her favorite fizzy drinks shipped in by the caseload. By the time her supply ran out, she had amassed a large supply of crates and glass bottles. Her solution was simple. Instead of lugging cases of soda back from town, Molter began brewing her own root beer, using water straight from Knife Lake.

“She would make the root beer in an eight-gallon Red Wing crock,” says Guy-Levar. “First, she boiled four gallons of water and added six pounds of sugar. However, Dorothy didn’t boil the water to purify it, she boiled the water so it would readily dissolve the sugar. Then she would add another four gallons of water straight from the lake.”

Dorothy Molter bottling her homemade root beer // Photo courtesy of the Dorothy Molter Museum

After she sold her resort to the government, she couldn’t legally sell root beer, so she gave it away for a suggested donation. At her peak, Molter was hand-bottling between 11,000 and 12,000 bottles of root beer each summer, which she would distribute to more than 200 visitors a day. Of course, accounts of the quality of Molter’s root beer varied wildly.

“People come to the museum, and one party will say, ‘My goodness, that root beer was so good. It was so refreshing and cold,’” says Guy-Levar. “Then the next party will come in and say, ‘Oh yeah, it was cold, but it was the most god-awful, yeasty root beer I’ve ever tasted.’ Because the temperatures in her cellar were so inconsistent, sometimes the root beer would become warm enough to cause fermentation. They always said that if you came to visit Dorothy in the spring, and you had a root beer that was left over from the previous year, it might have a little kick.”

Dorothy Molter // Photo courtesy of the Dorothy Molter Museum

Root beer wasn’t the only thing that Molter “gave” away. Since she lived on protected land, she wasn’t legally allowed to charge to rent out her cabins. Instead, visitors would find empty glass pickle jars in the cabins featuring handwritten signs that read “Donations.”

“It was cash under the table,” says Guy-Levar. Or rather, “Cash on top of the table—in glass pickle jars. I think that was Dorothy’s way of getting back at the federal government, because when you pay your taxes with cash, it’s much harder to track.”

Dorothy Molter became the sole proprietor of a wilderness fishing resort at the age of 41—an especially impressive feat in 1948. Most of her life was spent resisting the pressures of a government who wanted her off her land, but in 1972 the Forest Service finally relented and gave Dorothy lifetime tenancy in her cabins.

“I think they realized that she was not interested in moving south,” says Guy-Levar. “They knew that if they were going to start that battle again it would really portray them in a bad light. They came to the understanding that, ‘Let’s just let the sweet, little, old lady stay here. She’s not doing any harm. People seem to really like her, and she’s an ambassador for the area.’”

Molter passed away in December of 1986, after decades of surviving some of the harshest Minnesota winters on record, all the while greeting her visitors with a smile and a cold root beer.

No one lives near Knife Lake today—campers aren’t even allowed to spend the night on the isles. Three of Molter’s cabins have been moved to Ely, Minnesota, where her museum now sits. The rest of her resort, her stronghold soda retreat in the middle of wilderness, has gone back to nature.

 
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