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Wooden sculpture of the Root Beer Lady, 1998.
Wooden sculpture of the Root Beer Lady, 1998.

Cabin of the Root Beer Lady

Field review by the editors.

Ely, Minnesota

Root Beer is a potent elixir in the lake-pocked northern reaches of Minnesota. So it's fitting that a detour to the relatively isolated town of Ely -- which receives an average 69 inches of snow in a typical winter -- draws us not to the disappointing interactive howling booth at the Wolf Interpretive Center, but to something we call the Cabin of the Root Beer Lady.

It in fact is two cabins, and all their contents, carted to Ely (the nearest town) by canoe, snowmobile, and dog sled, piece by piece, from their original Knife Lake location along the Canadian border. This took seven years by a band of dedicated Root Beer Lady fans. The cabins are now operated as an attraction to tell the story and preserve memories of Dorothy Molter, "the Root Beer Lady."

Dorothy was a registered nurse from Chicago and the last year-round resident of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the largest wilderness preserve east of the Rockies. She lived there alone for her last eleven years -- the government had kicked everyone else out. Far from being a hermit, until 1975 she operated the Isle of Pines resort.

Dorothy made 11,000 to 12,000 bottles of root beer a year, entertaining 6,000 canoeists who stopped by annually. She died in 1986 after living 56 of her 79 years -- more or less -- at Knife Lake.

Today, a chainsaw-carved Dorothy greets visitors to the winter cabin, on a forested rise along Hwy 1 in Ely. During our visit, the claustrophobic structure was packed with curious visitors and region regulars. Many seemed to remember the Root Beer Lady or her beverage. "My name is in one of her guest books." "She made great root beer." You can still buy frosty fresh bottles, supposedly created with Dorothy's original formula.

A short, white-haired lady sits behind the counter. "You want to see the video? We show the short version -- only four seasons. We sell the longer one..."

The rooms are decorated with perfectly ordinary cabin clutter. The "Point Cabin" includes various items such as broken paddles and a decorated Christmas tree.

Visitors quiet down in the back room as a scene fills the 20-inch TV monitor. It's the Root Beer Lady herself, chopping wood . . . slowly. We can see by the pacing of the film's first few minutes that true students of Dorothy Molter should plan to spend two or three hours here....

Dorothy's wilderness life is now Minnesota legend, an icon of harmony with Nature and a return to basics. But we have a feeling that if it wasn't for the Root Beer, her cabin might just be a pile of rotting timbers on the Isle of Pines.

Cabin of the Root Beer Lady

Dorothy Molter Museum

2002 E. Sheridan St., Ely, MN
Dorothy Molter Museum. On the south side of Hwy 169/E. Sheridan St., one-quarter mile east of its intersection with Hwy 1.
Summer M-Sa 10 am - 5:30 pm, Su noon - 5:30 pm; weekends May and Sep. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

International Wolf CenterInternational Wolf Center, Ely, MN - < 1 mi.
Pillow RocksPillow Rocks, Ely, MN - < 1 mi.
Lumberjack StatueLumberjack Statue, Winton, MN - 2 mi.
In the region:
Sandpaper Museum, Two Harbors, MN - 61 mi.

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