A Life Lived Off the Grid

Dorothy Molter: More Than Just Root Beer

It is a land of unfettered beauty, almost untouched perfection.

Anyone who has travelled to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) can attest to its natural splendor.

“There is no other area like this in the world, this unique pattern of lakes and striations of incredible rock formations,” says Sarah Guy-Levar, who is originally from Aurora, Minnesota.

But could you live in such a remote area?

Could you live without the utilities and amenities we associate with modern society?

“I think it’s a desire for serenity. And least distraction as possible,” Guy-Levar said.
Sarah is the executive director at the Dorothy Molter Museum, a museum in Ely dedicated to a lady that called this untamed land her home for decades.

Living in wood cabins on her islands on Knife Lake, Molter was at home on the boundary waters; she was at peace.

From 1934 until her death in the 1980s, Dorothy Molter lived in this remote part of the world, experiencing utter tranquility.

“She was 12 miles from the nearest road,” said Guy-Levar. “She got to listen to the loon. She got to hear the wolves howling at night. She got to share joy in her resort guests when they came back with a stringer of walleyes. She intimately knew all of the birds that visited her.”

Molter became the owner of the Isle of Pines Resort on Knife Lake in 1948, when its former owner Bill Berglund passed away.

At one time, a journalist called Molter the “loneliest woman in America,” since she lived in such isolation.

But here was a lady who saw thousands of visitors a year – some stayed in the cabins when she rented them to resort guests; many were canoers just passing by.

“Dorothy was so good to so many people,” Guy-Levar said. “All of the locals knew that if they ran into trouble, they could stop at Dorothy’s and she would offer help.”

And many others came to sample her root beer – made by hand – brewed near her summer tent on the same islands she called home.

“Taking water right from Knife Lake, she would use an 8-gallon crock and mix it up, bottle it, and could make between 11 and 12 thousand bottles a summer,” Guy-Levar explains.

To many she is known as the “Root Beer Lady,” and the root beer she made locally famous is still sold at the museum, and at various stores around the area to this day.

But she had her trials and tribulations while living in and around the Isle of Pines.

In 1948 the government made travel by airplane to the wilderness impossible; it was the first year they tried to remove her from her home.

In 1964 the Federal Wilderness Act was passed, and again she was nearly forced away.

Yet thanks to the support of those who knew her – she and her “angels” fought the government and she was allowed to stay.

“Dorothy lived in a very controversial time,” Guy-Levar said. “Especially when it came to the development of this area as a true wilderness.”

And as unconventional as she may have been, Dorothy Molter was far from crazy.

“She was a registered nurse, she was an outdoorswoman, she was an entrepreneur, she was a woman who totally defied convention,” Guy-Levar said, recalling a woman she was never able to formally meet. “[She was an] independent thinker, unconventional, someone with serious fortitude.”

And when Dorothy Molter passed away in 1986, and the government planned to burn her cabins to the ground, her angels spoke up one more time.

They moved the cabins, and all the things inside to Ely, where the museum dedicated to her legacy has operated for nearly 30 years.

“We have people come back year after year and look through the guest registers that we have reproductions of and they’re so proud when they find their name, or when they find their Boy Scout Troop came, and relive those fond memories,” Guy-Levar said.

They’re fond memories of a woman who lived by her own rules, whose penchant for lending a helping hand endeared her to just about anyone lucky enough to have met her.

The Dorothy Molter Museum is typically closed in the winter months.

It will reopen for the season on Memorial Day weekend, and remain open through Labor Day weekend.

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