People around the world celebrated International Women’s Day this past week. It brought to mind the many women who have impacted and inspired me over the years—some of whom I have never even met. Two of those women were from right here in northern Minnesota. They chose to live lives that most people didn’t understand, in a time when it was hard for many to fathom a woman having the strength and independence to do it.
If I could go back in time and interview one person no longer with us, it would probably be Dorothy Molter. Dorothy Molter, the “Root Beer Lady,” was born in Pennsylvania and was living in Chicago when she first visited the north woods of Minnesota. She moved to Minnesota as a young adult, and ended up living on an island on Knife Lake from 1934 until her death in 1986. Living far from civilization, Dorothy lived without electricity or a telephone. She lived 15 miles and five portages from the nearest road.
Dorothy is known for her public dispute with the Forest Service over her land, and for her homemade root beer that she served to the thousands of canoeists that stopped by each year to visit her. A trained nurse, she often helped those traveling through the wilderness that needed first aid. People in the community helped her in return by bringing her supplies, especially in her later years. Although very educated, she chose to leave that life behind and follow a different dream.
Dorothy was the last remaining resident of the Boundary Waters. Dorothy’s life touched countless people. One of my best friends has shared with me how her grandfather used to deliver ice to Dorothy, and my parents have shared that my grandfather knew Dorothy. He ran a logging camp up on the Echo Trail. Dorothy’s cabin and belongings are now located in Ely where you can visit. I have visited the Dorothy Molter Museum several times and it is fun to be transported back to her life on the Isle of the Pines for an afternoon. Dorothy stayed true to herself and the way she wanted to live her life, despite the resistance she experienced. Her love for the wilderness of Minnesota is admirable.
Lydia Torry lived much like Dorothy and I imagine if they had met, they would have quickly become good friends. They had much in common. Lydia lived over 50 years on Kubel Island on Namakan Lake in what is now known as Voyageur’s National Park. Lydia—who was a Finnish immigrant—married Emil Torry who was a commercial fisherman. The two were pen pals before marrying. After Emil’s tragic death in 1954 (he drowned on a stormy day), Lydia chose to remain on the island for 23 years splitting and hauling her own firewood, and hauling water to her cabin from the lake. She kept busy in her gardens growing her own food, crocheting and playing the harp that Emil made her.
Much like Dorothy, though lesser known, Lydia often welcomed guests who stopped by. Some of them would bring her fresh produce and other things. Lydia’s choice to live a life of solitude in the north woods of Minnesota is admirable. Lydia, no doubt, is a great example of Finnish sisu. Although never formally educated, she has much to teach us. She lived a long life, and died at the age of 95. Her story is fascinating and I hope one that is never forgotten. I have been blessed to travel the waters she once loved and called home.
Much closer to me, I think of my great-grandmother Hilma. Also Finnish, she stayed behind in her home country of Finland with four children while my great-grandfather Isak traveled to the United States to make a home for them. It took about 10 years before she was able to join him here in northern Minnesota. The first of many sacrifices. I can’t imagine what it was like for her to leave everything she knew behind to get on a ship and travel for weeks across the ocean to a new country where she would not even understand the language.
Growing up I would hear bits and pieces about her life, but she seemed as foreign to me as those I read about in my school history books. As I have grown older she has become more real to me. In August I will travel to her home in Finland—out of respect for her and the sacrifices she made. At the time, Finland was not a good place to live. They chose to better their life. I can’t imagine how hard the decision was and the challenges they experienced. I think often of the stories I have been told. One of them being how one of their daughters married and moved back to Finland. My grandmother used to tell me about her mom walking her sister Emma to the end of the road to catch the bus. They never saw her again. Emma, too, bravely chose the life she wanted to live. Perhaps few understood her decision.
These women are strong examples of why it’s okay to live a life that others don’t understand. It is a lesson that I have had to learn, and that I still struggle with at times. It is a lesson that I see my friends and acquaintances wrestle with. We all care so much about what others think. Have you ever tried to make a positive change in your life, and faced resistance from those that know you? Have you ever felt the need to explain why you choose to live the way you do? Only you know what is best for you. Don’t forget that.
There is so much to learn through the brave lives of these women and others. We have thousands of examples of strong women in our communities, our country and the world we live in. What I love the most about these three is no one really knew them. They worked hard and sacrificed to live the way they chose. And yet, they were willing to accept help when needed. They lived simply, yet have left a mark on those of us who may have never known them, but learned from them. They lived bravely and left life stories that will live on.
Jody Rae lives Eveleth, MN, but spends most of her time in the woods.