The root-beer-selling, island-living "Florence Nightingale of the Northwoods"
The story of Dorothy Molter, a legend of the Boundary Waters
Hello, Snackers. You’re in the middle of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and you’re thirsty for something other than water or that weird powder mix in your pack. For decades, on Knife Lake, you had one other option: root beer.
Dorothy Molter sounds like tall tale. For more than 40 years, she lived largely alone on an island deep in the woods of northern Minnesota. She was fully off the grid, hauling her own ice and fending off bears. “They come around looking for food and sometimes rip up the place,” she told the Indianapolis Star in 1970.
The federal government tried to force her to move when it acquired the land to create the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in the 1960s, but she resisted and was one of two people officially allowed to stay in the area; the other was a onetime prospector named Benny Ambrose. He died in 1982, leaving Molter “the last non-indigenous resident of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness” until her own death in 1986. (I haven’t been able to find information about any Indigenous residents although, of course, lack of media coverage does not necessarily mean lack of people.)
Molter was a legend long before her battle with the government. Here’s how the Cincinnati Enquirer described her in 1959:
Dorothy, as she prefers to be known, has prematurely white hair. Her face has been tanned by years of outdoor living to the point where she sometimes is mistaken for an Indian. She is stronger than most men. She dislikes formality and fancy dress, wears blue jeans and a shirt with only minor variations for the sub-zero weather.
She must bring all her supplies over a series of lakes, streams and canoe portages which run north of her her Isle of Pines of Knife Lake. She can make the 36-mile round trip to Ely in a day by canoe, bringing back seven 60-pound packs—a trip few others, including Indians and trappers, would attempt except in an emergency. It is not uncommon for campers and guides to take three days to make the trip one-way.
If you’re not up for a trek into the woods yourself, let Google Maps emphasize just how remote Island of the Pines is—I’ve marked it with an arrow here. Ely, in the bottom left portion of the map, has a population of 3,200, but it’s what constitutes the Big City in the area. North and east of Ely, permanent human settlements are almost nonexistent for hundreds of miles. It’s just trees and lakes and more trees and more lakes, plus bears and timber wolves.
The Saturday Evening Post and other media outlets often called her “the loneliest woman in America,” a reductive and patronizing label that she rejected. “That never was really true and it certainly isn’t true these days,” she told the Star. “Sometimes I wish it were.”
For all the badassery, Molter was known for her sly sense of humor and warm hospitality. When Grace Schillinger, a reporter for the Moline, Illinois Dispatch arrived in 1970, she was amused to find “an honest-to-goodness parking meter at her log dock” and bowled over with charm when Molter invited her in to sit at her table “on white tile linoleum, freshly scrubbed,” and chat by the fire of her stove. Molter’s preferred description for herself was “the Florence Nightingale of the Northwoods,” someone known for helping paddlers who were lost, in distress, or just looking for some company all those miles into the wilderness.
For most people who passed her island, though, she was most famous for one thing: root beer.
Molter was born in Pennsylvania in 1907. She had a tricky childhood: her mother died when Molter was young, and she lived alternately in orphan homes and with her father, who moved the family to Chicago when she was a teenager. After graduating from high school, she went to nursing school, but when the Depression hit, she couldn’t find work as a nurse. Her father had a friend who was a park ranger on an island in northern Minnesota, renting a few cabins and running a tiny store. The life sounded appealing to Dorothy—better than trying to find a job in Chicago, anyway—so off she went to assist the ranger. When he got sick, she put her training to work and took care of him; when he died, he left the site to Molter.
And there she stayed. She kept renting out the cabins and running the store. More and more people stopped by her trading post and her legend grew. According to the Enquirer’s account, in 1959,
She has dehydrated food, candy, beer, homemade root beer, canoe paddles, canned meat, sugar, salt, flour, axes and just about everything else that could come in handy in the woods. Her best customers are those whose canoes have turned over and are left without supplies.
When the area became an official federally-controlled wilderness in 1965, the laws governing it suddenly changed. No businesses were allowed inside the designated wilderness, including stores or rental cabins. No homesteads, either—Molter was given until 1975 to leave. The government eventually relented on this last part, letting her stay, but the no-businesses law stayed in place. Molter could keep living on Isle of Pines, but the store and cabins would have to close.
At the same time, more and more people were coming to the area—the BWCAW was a destination that drew visitors from around the USA, thanks to its seemingly endless expanses of forests and 1,200 miles of canoe routes. These days, about 250,000 people spend some time there every year, paddling and portaging and camping.
By 1970, Molter estimated that 5,000 people stopped by her island. She didn’t have as much to offer as she once had, but there were two big draws: conversation and a cold drink. Molter had realized that she could still give away her homemade root beer, and so she did, hundreds of bottles every year. According to the Dorothy Molter Museum, “between 1976 and 1986 Dorothy and her helpers brewed an average of over 10,000 bottles of root beer per summer.”
She kept it chilled with ice she harvested each winter, and the delicious, free elixir—and a conversation with Dorothy—became know as a highlight of any trip to the BWCAW. Visitors signed her guestbook and if they included their address, she would write them a Christmas card, “staying up until 3 or 4 in the morning” to get through her stack of correspondence.
Snack Stack is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I never had the pleasure of paddling the BWCAW and pausing for root beer—Dorothy Molter died when I was five years old—so I can only speculate on the joy she must have provided for those who stopped to quench their thirst and need for chitchat.
Despite the myriad joys of catching fish and foraging berries and building a campfire to cook whatever tinned things you have in your bulging backpack, if that’s not your everyday existence, the novelty of the experience can wear thin. Roughing it gets, well, rough.
In The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx argues that one of the key tensions of American identity has always been the battle between nature and industry, a desire to have both the latest and greatest in industry and technology and vast expanses of so-called “untamed” wilderness. We want to have it both ways, the whirr of machines and the songs of unknown birds forming a lovely duet, but the reality always ends up being dissonant and jarring. They don’t balance each other because they can’t—it’s impossible.
And yet, every now and then, there’s something that feels like it’s a bit of both. Large urban parks can fit the bill, especially those with a patch of thick forested area where you can almost—almost—feel fully removed from the machine. Dorothy Molter offered an inverse of that, a fleeting taste of a modern urbanized life amidst miles and miles of timeless wilds.
My travels are typically not the rugged kind—I enjoy day hikes, but trekking through the woods for weeks is, uh, not my thing—but when I’m on the road, I do like to seek out the reminders of home now and then, as a way to briefly reboot and feel grounded before going back to the unfamiliar streets. Eating a slice of pizza or taking a few minutes to read an English-language newspaper or listening to a favorite song on my headphones—these things can provide a much-needed boost that gives me more energy and mental space to keep going through the metaphorical forest in front of me.
This, I think, is precisely what Dorothy Molter’s root beer offered to weary paddlers: a reminder of home at a time when the whole point was escaping from home. It was a reset button.
For more about Dorothy Molter, watch this short documentary:
I met her when I was a young boy, on a canoe trip just as the BWCA was forming. On my many fishing trips in, I'd stop and say hello. I met Ben there on more than one occasion. When she passed on, I watched as they removed her cabins. What is left is now at the edge of town (Ely), and people can come to see and look at her tbings, and a film about her. When my son and I on one trip into the B'dub, we stopped at the islands on our way to Bennies homestead area....the bottle caps from the root beer bottles can still be seen under water. At Bennies place his flowers and garden areas can still be seen. I'm unabke to canoe in now.....but the memories remain. She was "hard core" but very friendly...as was Ben. She used her nursing skills to anyone needing them in their wilderness travels......
It's always interesting people who choose the solitude of the wilderness, especially in my neck of the woods (I live in Wisconsin). I've heard about Dorthy and her story is cool. There's another guy named Wendell Beckwith that did the same kind of thing, but to pursue his scientific research.