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Into the woods: An Ely musician has turned ‘Root Beer Lady’ Dorothy Molter’s story into a musical

Dorothy Molter at her cabin in the Boundary Waters at age 77, in 1984. Ely-based musician Barb Cary Hall has spent the past six years writing a musical about Molter, who spent more than 50 years living alone and tending to tourists on Knife Lake. (Sam Cook / Forum News Service)1 / 3
Jeff Larson of the U.S. Forest Service surveys the cooler where Dorothy Molter kept her root beer at her Knife Lake cabin in 1984. (Sam Cook / Forum News Service)2 / 3
Dorothy Molter speaks with Jeff Larson, with the U.S. Forest Service in Grand Marais, at Molter's cabin on Knife Lake in the Boundary Waters in June 1984. (Sam Cook / Forum News Service)3 / 3

ELY, Minn. — A long-ish time ago, on an island in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, there lived a nurse who made root beer for passing canoeists.

Cue the "O Dorothy Molter Waltz."

Ely-based musician Barb Cary Hall has spent the past six years writing a musical about the regional folk figure who spent more than 50 years living alone and tending to tourists on Knife Lake. "Root Beer Lady: The Musical" is an adaptation of her father Bob Cary's book about Molter and it premieres this week at the Washington Auditorium in Ely. The show tells Molter's story with a mix of mostly music, a bit of narration and old photographs on loan from the Dorothy Molter Museum.

Hall said the idea to write the musical was born of an offhand remark by a friend about how, specifically out West, there are often musicals made about historical figures of regional interest — so why not one about Dorothy Molter?

"That put the bug in my ear," said Hall, a lifelong musician who spent almost a decade playing aboard the Vista Fleet in Duluth, was a member of the Park Pointer Sisters and later became the house musician at Lutsen Resort.

In recent years, Hall has kept an ear open for tunes that would fit the tone of Molter's story. Then she would rework the lyrics to fit the show — which is how "Rosalinda Waltz" by Frank Yankovic became "O Dorothy Molter."

'Root Beer Lady'

Molter, on a break from nursing school in Chicago, was a late-addition to her father's northern Minnesota fishing trip in 1930. The crew set up at a remote cabin and Molter's meanderings through the woods led to a life change: This is where she wanted to live.

"To sit in one place and see a kingfisher, a mink and a beaver," Bob Cary quoted her as thinking in his book. "What an amazing country!"

Molter returned to the area, permanently, a few years later.

She was living on Isle of the Pines and the area around her grew in popularity as a canoeist destination. Eventually motorboats were banned and other homes and businesses were removed. After the Federal Wilderness Act passed in the 1960s, the government tried to push Molter out.

Through a loophole — she was given the title volunteer in service — Molter was allowed to stay there until she died in 1986. She was the last non-indigenous full-time resident of the Boundary Waters.

While she was there, Molter became an outpost of civilization at her spot close to the U.S.-Canada border. She tended to injured canoeists and passed out — sometimes even rationed — her home-brewed root beer, a version of which is still sold in the area.

The process

Hall spent years gathering music, writing songs, and otherwise making notes about Molter. She applied for a few grants — and got them — and, after developing a first draft, she connected with script doctor Liz Engelman of Tofte Lake Center.

"We spent a year, from morning until afternoon, going over the script, talking it through," Hall said. "She gave me so many aha moments."

Hall said she has rewritten the work about 12 times in the past two years — including a revision this past spring.

"I've never done anything like that," she said, adding that it's a work in progress.

The result is a linear story narrated by Molter's sister Ruth. It covers why Molter stayed in the wilderness, why she made root beer, conflicts over staying on the land, and the other characters she encountered: Bob Cary, Denny Ambrose, three drunk canoeists who happen upon her home, Moose Lake Pete and Two Crow — a member of the Ojibwe community, which helped her through the winters with gifts of wild rice and venison.

Rehearsals began in May.

Andrea Strom, who plays young Dorothy Molter, said she didn't know a lot about Molter before joining the cast. The story, she said, is amazing.

"(She's) strong, independent, bold and courageous, I'd say," Strom said. "And gutsy. She moved up here when she was 24 at a time when that wasn't done by young women. And it was not OK with her parents. She knew what she liked and knew how she wanted to live, and she did it."

The tunes

There are five original songs in the show that Hall said is 80 percent music. It's got a touch of Slovenian with "Hey Prijatle," and "Dupsha Dove," by Peter and Lou Berryman, is funny and accordion fueled.

Late Ojibwe elder Jim Northrup asked Hall to write music to go alongside his poem "End of the Beginning." Before he died last year, he agreed to let her use it in the show.

Last year, Hall staged a reading of "Root Beer Lady" to get feedback from her fellow Elyites. She latched onto a curious critique from an anonymous source: "You have to write a song called ''Quit your Bellyaching.'"

So she did it. The song plays in a scene where a small crew has gathered to bottle root beer on a hot day. "Kwitchurbelliakin!" is an original tune with original lyrics.

"Kwitchurbelliakin! Kwitchurbelliakin! Stop this very minute! The world is beautiful, so kwitchurbelliakin, you're lucky you're still in it! There's plenty you can smile about just take a look around! Kwitchurbelliakin while you're still above the ground," Hall sang in a big, bold voice during a recent phone interview.

Delivering Dorothy's story

Sarah Guy-Levar, executive director of the Dorothy Molter Museum, has been involved with the project from the beginning. In addition to providing archival photographs, the museum is the show's fiscal agent and gets a percentage of ticket sales.

She saw potential in even the first recording of the soundtrack, she said.

Every so often, something happens that builds buzz around Molter and the museum — like the anniversary of her death or of the passing of the Wilderness Act. Now, this — which has attracted media attention from the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio.

"The fact that Dorothy's story is still relevant really speaks to her character," said Guy-Levar, who has also written a biography about Molter, "Dorothy Molter: The Root Beer Lady of Knife Lake." "It's a great way to deliver Dorothy's story to a new audience and honor a woman in Minnesota history."

Hall said she would like to see the musical travel to regional libraries and colleges or at least get an annual reboot in Ely. In the meantime, she has seen signs that her father, who died in 2006, approves of her Molter tribute.

"There's an eagle circling over my house right now," she said recently. "I've always felt that my dad's spirit was an eagle. There's been eagles appearing a lot."

As for what Molter would think of the show:

"She was kind of an unassuming person," Hall said. "She'd probably say, 'What're you doing that for?'''

IF YOU GO

What: "Root Beer Lady: The Musical" by Barb Cary Hall

When: 7 p.m., Aug. 3-5; 2 p.m., Aug. 6

Where: Washington Auditorium, Ely

Tickets: Start at $14, available at brownpapertickets.com

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