The “loneliest woman in America” who brewed root beer for thousands of visitors
From 1934 to 1986, Dorothy Molter lived alone on the Isle of Pines in Minnesota’s million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Her home was 25km by canoe from the nearest road and 50km from the nearest town, and the waters and wilderness surrounding it played home to bald eagles, swans, deer, bear, and the occasional moose.
During the summer, she operated a fishing camp, but lived in almost permanent solitude during the winter. Her interesting choice of residence wasn’t what cemented her legacy, however: it was the root beer she brewed with lake water and served to visitors. Thanks to this hobby, she became known as “the root beer lady”.
Molter fell in love with the woods in 1930 during a family fishing trip, and after struggling to find work as a nurse during the Depression in her home city of Chicago, she returned. A man named Bill Berglund promised her that if she stayed to help him run his fishing camp, he would leave her the four-cabin resort in his will. True to his word, when he died in 1948, Molter took over.
She gained a reputation as a wilderness “first responder”, using her nursing training to help injured canoers and animals alike. Her tendency to help those who were injured earned her another nickname, “Nightingale of the Northwoods”.
Jess Edberg, executive director of the Dorothy Molter Museum, said that despite all of this, it was her decision to live in solitude that most intrigued people. “An unmarried woman living alone in the wilderness was a curiosity,” she says.
Molter herself once swore that she wouldn’t marry unless she found a man who could “portage heavier loads, chop more wood, or catch more fish” than her. It’s a good thing Molter was so self-sufficient, because living in such isolation is not for the faint of heart. Without electricity, a telephone, or running water, she chopped her own wood, hauled lake water, and harvested ice in winter to preserve food in warmer months. Communication, whether by mail, telegraph, or word-of-mouth, often took days.
Her isolation was only exacerbated by the US government’s attempts to preserve the wilderness surrounding her home. After float plane flights to the island ended in 1952, Molter was dubbed the “loneliest woman in America” in the press.
The Wilderness Act of 1964 mandated that residences and buildings had to be removed from the area. Molter ignored repeated orders from the US Forest Service to vacate, and eventually, following a groundswell of public support, she was allowed to stay on her island as a “volunteer-in-service”, although she was forced to close her camp. This made her the last resident of the Boundary Waters.
With the cessation of flights to the area, it became impossible to transport drinks, so naturally, Molter began making her own root beer. She bought flavoured syrup from the nearby town or local Boy Scout base, and blended it with sugar, yeast for carbonation, and lake water in a 30-litre crock. She bottled the resulting beverage in hundreds of empty glass bottles she had collected over the years, with nowhere to dispose of them.
Despite the quality of the drink not always being consistent, as many as 7000 visitors managed to consume around 12,000 bottles of the homemade soda, with the local Boy Scouts being particular fans.
After Molter passed away at her cabin in 1986, a group that dubbed itself “Dorothy’s Angels” managed to move her buildings to the nearby town of Ely and create a museum in her honour. The Dorothy Molter Museum sits in a woodsy area at the edge of the town, offering visitors a sample of root beer and a taste of Molter’s quiet life.
Image: Buddy Mays/Corbis via Getty Images
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