Nestled in a quiet grove of pines, just outside of Ely, Minnesota, are the cabins and museum of one of the north wood’s dearest and most colorful individuals, Dorothy Molter. Some remember her fondly as the “Root Beer Lady” while others recall her as the “Nightingale of the Wilderness” or, simply, Dorothy.
Dorothy carved out her legacy in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) located within the Quetico-Superior National Forest. Dorothy lived on the Isle of Pines on Knife Lake for more than 56 years where she paddled, hiked, fished, skied and snowshoed this pristine area, until her death in 1986. She was visited by as many as 7,000 people a year.
Dorothy Louise Molter was born May 6th, 1907, in Arnold, Pennsylvania. Dorothy was one of six children born to Mattie and John “Cap” Molter. Dorothy’s mother, Mattie, passed away when Dorothy was seven. The children were placed in an orphanage in Cincinnati until “Cap” remarried in 1919 and moved to Chicago, at which time he reunited the family.
After attending high school, Dorothy chose a career in nursing. This eventually led to her lifetime of living in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area on the international border of the United States and Ontario, Canada. She would administer to many, many visitors who were in need of first aid, including tending to wildlife such as Vera the crow pictured here with Dorothy on the Isle of Pines of Knife Lake.
Dorothy was 23 when she first visited Knife Lake in the Superior National Forest north of Ely, Minnesota, in 1930. She came to stay in 1934 to care for Bill Berglund who owned and operated the Isle of Pines Resort. Dorothy spent almost all of her time there, only returning to the Chicago area to attend classes required to maintain her nursing certification.
When Bill passed away in 1948, Dorothy became the owner of the resort. She operated the Isle of Pines Resort from 1948 to 1975.
Winter Cabin, which is part of the museum tour
In the winter, Dorothy would live in the winter cabin, located on the east end of the largest of the three islands. In the spring, she would move over to the summer island and live in a tent cabin, renting out the winter cabin, along with the trapper cabin, the point cabin, and the Cady cabin located on another small island.
Many visitors to Isle of Pines remember Dorothy’s flower gardens and the surrounding fences crafted from broken paddles to keep the critters out. As more visitors donated broken paddles, it wasn’t long before there were brightly painted paddle fences everywhere. Dorothy did have one rule: the paddles had to be broken and unusable (though many were sawed in half just for the honor of being placed on her fences).
Original paddles from fence on display at the museum
Due to the Wilderness Act, Dorothy’s property was condemned and purchased by the United States government. She was informed she would no longer be allowed to live on Isle of Pines or rent the cabins as a resort and was ordered to leave the area. Her many friends circulated petitions in order that she would be allowed to remain. She was granted lifetime tenancy in 1975 and as a result was able to stay until her death in December 1986.