There was an issue with the History Theatre play originally titled "The Loneliest Woman in America": Actor/writer Kim Schultz doesn't believe her character, Dorothy Molter, was lonely.
She's in good company. Molter — called "the loneliest woman" in a Saturday Evening Post story about her half-century living in a remote Minnesota cabin — also disliked the sobriquet.
"People assumed she was lonely because she was alone, but I don't think that's the case," said Schultz, whose play, now called "The Root Beer Lady," opens Saturday. "Thousands of people visited her to buy her root beer and I think she considered nature and animals to be her companions."
Molter was famous for the homemade root beer she sold to tourists and visiting students, including a pre-fame Julia Roberts. The pioneer lived for more than 50 years on Knife Lake, in what has been designated the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The Chicagoan first visited the Isle of Pines "resort" in 1930 on a fishing trip with her dad, permanently moving in four years later. She stayed, in a small cabin with no electricity or utilities, until her death in 1986. She was, as the History Theatre is calling her, "the last legal non-Indigenous resident of the Boundary Waters."
"Root Beer Lady" finds 79-year-old Molter sitting at her kitchen table, part of a Chelsea M. Warren set that depicts the cabin and its Boundary Waters backdrop. She shares tales of her life and adventures in nature.
"There were all these stories written about her and assumptions made about who she was," said Schultz, who has performed other solo shows but wasn't sure that's what "Root Beer" would be. "I looked at whether it should be a multi-actor play but the more I dug into it, I realized I wanted Dorothy to tell her own story."
Schultz, whose one-woman "No Placed Called Home" was at Illusion Theater in 2011, learned of Molter in 2019, while an artist-in-residence at Tofte Lake Center. Fascinated, she began doing research, including visiting the Boundary Waters and Ely's Dorothy Molter Museum, which includes some of its namesake's reassembled cabins. Schultz quickly realized Molter's story could be a play, and pitched the idea to former History Theatre artistic director Ron Peluso.
Molter had a difficult childhood, including a stay in a children's home after her mother's death. But Schultz doesn't believe the root beer lady was fleeing anything when she moved north. Instead, the playwright thinks Molter's story is a kind of romance.
"I think this is a love story, love for the Earth and nature. I think she fell in love with what is now the Boundary Waters," said Schultz. "She was a trailblazer, for women and for the environment. She took care of the planet before we were taking care of the planet. She realized the importance of the lake water and of picking up trash from campers and canoers."
Schultz is quick to note that the privilege of being a white person helped Molter exist in the Boundary Waters, even as laws were changing the rules in the place she called home. And, although Molter lived by herself, she had help — including Ojibwe people who taught her skills she needed to survive, and Bill Berglund, who she met when she visited his Isle of Pines resort. Ultimately, he left it to her in his will.
"I hope audiences see her as a role model, someone who lived her life by her own rules, was kind about it but wasn't going to live in a world dictated by men," said Schultz. "She would say, 'Quit your bellyaching.'" (Her brother made signs to that effect, spelling the phrase "Kwitchurbeliakin.")
Reversing Molter's path, Schultz grew up in Minnesota (she attended Burnsville High School) and ended up in Chicago. The more she researched Molter, the more she admired her audacity.
"I think, 'What brave act am I going to do today, to live the kind of life I want to live?' Dorothy did it in 1930, so I have 90 years on her," said Schultz, who still has questions about what it was that made Molter take the leap: frustration over a stalled nursing career? Self-reliance she developed when separated from her parents? Was she somehow born in the wrong place, when she should have been in northern Minnesota all along?
"I don't know what it was," said Schultz. "She said 'yes' to this random fishing trip. And it changed her life forever."
'The Root Beer Lady'
Who: By Kim Schultz. Directed by Addie Gorlin-Han.
When: 10 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Thu., 7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Feb. 19.
Where: History Theatre, 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul.
Protocol: Masks required for Friday and Sunday performances.
Tickets: $20-$58, 651-292-4323 or historytheatre.com.