Root Beer Lady Revisited

Here’s a piece the Minnesota Public Radio published about the Root Beer Lady. If you have never visited the Island of Pines on Knife Lake then you should consider paddling that way this summer. It’s a relatively easy trip from Saganaga Lake with only three portages!

Throughout 2017, Minnesota Public Radio will celebrate 50 years on the air by sharing highlights from our archives, connecting Minnesota’s past to its present. | This story originally aired in Oct. 15, 1986.

She’ll live in memories as “The Root Beer Lady,” but how Dorothy Molter got started making her homemade pop seems to involve much happenstance.

Molter was the last person to live in the Boundary Waters as tightening regulations made the area more of a protected wilderness than a developed tourist destination.

Her island homestead on Knife Lake was a regular stop for campers who’d buy candy bars and soda while taking Molter’s campsite advice and directions.

• From 2013: Remembering the ‘Root Beer Lady’ of Knife Lake

She’d buy all kinds of pop, flown in by the case.

But the planes eventually stopped coming. In 1949, President Harry Truman issued an executive order that restricted planes from getting to Molter’s home. Three years later, the plane of a defiant pilot who had continued to fly around the Boundary Waters was impounded. It was an example set for the others, and that’s when the flight ban really took effect.

So, Molter was left with an abundance of pop bottles and a good idea.

“When the planes quit flyin’, I got stuck with all the pop bottles I had. I wasn’t about to take ’em back over the portage and return ’em to town so I just kept ’em. Thought I might as well keep ’em up here and do something with ’em. So somebody suggested makin’ root beer. I’d never made it before, but they seem to like it.”

That’s part of what Molter told former MPR reporter Mark Heistad for his documentary, “The Land Between: An Aural Portrait of the B.W.C.A.,” which aired in 1986.

Heistad asked Molter how long she’d keep living in her summer tent and winter cabin in the woods.

“If I feel myself gettin’ sick, I’ll get out,” Molter said.

She never left the woods — and died in 1986 on Knife Lake.

Molter’s home was removed from the Boundary Waters and has been re-assembled as a museum in Ely.

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