Dorothy Molter: The Last Homestead in the BWCA
She was the last person to call what is today the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) home. But to thousands of canoeists passing by, she was known as “The Root Beer Lady.”
Dorothy Molter moved to the Isle of Pines on Knife Lake in 1934, where she had visited over the previous few years and worked at a local lodge. When the lodge’s owner passed away in 1948 she became owner.
Trained as a nurse, Molter often helped canoeists and others visiting the area. In 1948, changes began to take place to establish the Boundary Waters as a national wilderness area, and in 1964 the BWCA was officially established with passage of the Federal Wilderness Act defining a wilderness. Passage of the act meant Molter would need to leave.
Despite many attempts over the years to remove Molter and condemn her property, public support kept her in the area. She was featured in numerous media stories over the years, and in 1975, the U.S. Forest Service officially named Molter a “volunteer in service,” allowing her to stay and providing assistance for her.
Over the years, she visited with countless BWCAW travelers, selling her homemade root beer and often heard saying “kwitchurbeliakin” (quit your belly aching). As many as 7,000 people would visit in a single year. Her home was soon marked by their passage – she created a fence around her cabin with broken canoe paddles given to her by visitors.
During her entire time living on Knife Lake, she had no electricity or telephone, and used propane for cooking and wood for heat. In the winter she cut ice from the lake to keep her food – including the root beer – cool in her refrigerator.
Molter lived in the BWCAW, 36 miles from the nearest road, for the rest of her life. Her passing in 1986 marked the last time a person lived full time in the BWCAW. Following her death, her home was required to be removed, due to federal guidelines prohibiting permanent living structures in wilderness areas. Her cabin and surrounding structures were removed and taken by dogsled and snowmobile to Ely, MN where they were reassembled as a museum.
Today, visitors to the museum will see Molter’s home just as they might have on Knife Lake, including the broken canoe paddle fence and the painted “Camp Kwitchurbeliakin” sign. Molter’s famous root beer is also available in Ely, as well as other shops and stores throughout the North Shore and the state.
The site remains a commemoration of one of the last true wilderness lifestyles in the country, and an innovative woman who truly knew what it meant to love the land.
If you go:
The Dorothy Molter Museum is open Memorial Day through Labor Day. Pick up six packs or cases of Dorothy’s Isle of Pines Root Beer at the museum store. Her famous root beer is located in stores throughout the state, including Duluth Pack in Canal Park, Duluth, MN and in the Twin Cities in stores such as Byerly’s.
The museum is located just east of Downtown Ely on Hwy 169/1, just before the International Wolf Center, at 2002 East Sheridan Street.
While you’re there:
Stop in Downtown Ely, MN for an afternoon of shopping and dining, or stop for a visit on the way into the BWCAW.
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