Two years after snowmobiles were banned in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a group from 500- to 1,000-people strong drove their snow machines 15 miles into the BWCA for one day.
They weren’t renegades. For them, the U.S. Forest Service granted rare permission to use snowmobiles in the wilderness across one route only. It was a memorial ride to Knife Lake in 1987. The assembly served a single purpose — to mourn the passing of a beloved resident. That ride celebrated its 30th anniversary Jan. 10.
The beloved resident was Dorothy Molter, and she was a dynamo of spirit. Her independence, tender heart and grit made her a Boundary Waters legend. For more than 56 years her home was the Isle of Pines on Knife Lake northeast of Ely, where she received as many as 7,000 visitors per year.
Many knew her as the Root Beer Lady, the Nightingale of the Wilderness, or both. Molter served her famous homemade root beer to thirsty wilderness paddlers who stopped. Sometimes she used her nursing skills to treat visitors and even wildlife that needed first aid.
She was born in 1907 in Arnold, Pa., and grew up in Chicago. Molter made a gutsy decision in 1934 that went contrary to her era, said Sarah Levar, co-author of Molter’s biography and director of the Dorothy Molter Museum in Ely. Molter wasn’t interested in marriage or motherhood. However, she was kind, liked people and had a nursing degree.
“[Molter] told her parents that she was giving up the big city life and the career as a registered nurse in Chicago to work at a wilderness fishing resort,” Levar said. “At age 41 in 1948, she became sole proprietor of [the resort]. How many women in 1948 were the sole proprietor of anything?”
Beyond Molter’s spirit, her life paralleled major environmental management and legislative changes, including federal designation of Minnesota’s wilderness. She was the last non-indigenous resident in what is now the BWCA. But that took some doing.
Owing to the Wilderness Act of 1964, the federal government issued an order requiring Molter to leave the wilderness. She was no longer allowed to run the resort or reside there alone. Some area residents didn’t take this lightly. Molter had touched the lives of so many that they petitioned the government to let her stay. After national media attention and a long legal battle, she was granted lifetime tenancy in 1972.
The memorial snowmobile ride took place from Ely to her cabins at the Isle of Pines three weeks after her death on Dec. 18, 1986. She was 79. Peg Rosett and her late husband, John, were close friends of Molter. They were instrumental in organizing the ride. They requested the Forest Service lift the snowmobile ban.
Rosett said the memorial service was held outside by Molter’s cabin where participants stood respectfully nearby and out onto the ice. She recollected the scene as if Molter was still with them. Donuts and coffee were served outdoors, and folks took to reminiscing — stopping by Molter’s cabin for coffee after morning trout fishing was popular.
“Sometimes she had a really special [vegetable beef] soup she would make and you’d sit around her table,” Rosett said. “Most of the time there wasn’t even sitting room because you’d have so many people in the cabin.”
Upon Molter’s death in December, the government obtained her property and slated the structures for demolition. But the Rosetts, Molter’s friends and community leaders had other ideas.
In January, “Dorothy’s Angels” was formed, a task force campaigning to save Molter’s possessions. By late February, the Forest Service granted the group permission to remove her cabins and personal belongings. They were given until mid-April to complete the job — by nonmotorized means. Approved Forest Service flights helped transport work crews but only until mid-March. In reality, push came to shove.
During this time, Bert Hyde coordinated sled dog teams from Voyageur Outward Bound School to haul the parts. He said the cabins were dismantled, logs and pieces numbered, and diagrams rendered for how they should be reassembled. “We would load up the logs on dog sleds and then freight them down to the landing at Moose Lake.”
Unfortunately, an early March thaw made terrain impossible for dog teams to cross. But on March 20, 1987, the Forest Service granted a three-day window for the volunteers to use motorized methods and remove final logs. An army of Angels showed up and met the deadline.
After several years of planning, the cabin logs and Molter’s artifacts were reassembled. The Dorothy Molter Museum opened to preserve Molter’s legacy on her birthdate (May 6) in 1993. Her cabins sit in a grove of pines on Ely’s east side that Rosett said is just like Molter had them at Knife Lake. The grounds also include an interpretive center and a nature trail. Exhibits feature her root beer-making equipment, an extensive collection of her personal items, photos and memorabilia, and documentation of BWCA history.
Levar said the small organization’s extraordinary effort and independent fundraising speaks volumes about Molter. “Thirty years later, people still care about her, and her legacy is still inspiring people. [That] really is a testimony to her character.”
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached at email@example.com.