There is no doubt that each city has its colorful characters. However, you will have to go far to find one more intriguing than Martha Kraencke, the walking lady of Edmonds. Martha was not just different; she had an aura of mystery about her. You could tell she must have been beautiful in her young years, and she had the quality of having had riches and importance. So, what was she doing walking the streets and alley ways of Edmonds?
When someone does seem different, children can be cruel, and this was true when Martha was sighted. Often as she walked, the taunts from the children of “Martha, Martha” would follow her on her jaunts. Martha’s steps seldom faltered—it was as if she did not even hear the calls.
If you spent time in downtown Edmonds in the latter part of the 1940s through 1977, Martha Kraencke was a lady you would have noticed and wondered about. For almost 30 years she was without a doubt one of the most visible people in Edmonds. She was also, one of the most puzzling.
As she rested from her walking, Martha was often seen sitting on her favorite waterfront bench gazing out over the waters of Puget Sound. It was here that Helen Reynolds’ camera captured Martha’s visage to display in the front window of her photography studio on Main Street in Edmonds. Martha was wearing what seemed to be her favorite Navy blue suit, a pristine white blouse and a wide brimmed hat. It must have been a warm day as her jacket was folded neatly over the back of the bench.
What did Martha see? Perhaps she was recalling happier times, or maybe she was recalling the time when her beloved husband’s body was found floating in the Pacific Ocean near their lovely California home? The story of Martha’s life includes glamour, tragedy, and finally a life of solitude. Yes, Martha definitely had a story, but it was one she seldom shared.
Martha was born Martha Giersch in 1894 in Berlin, Germany. She completed her schooling in 1912 and then went to work as a secretary for a German movie studio in Berlin. Described as an attractive, slender, grey-eyed blonde, Martha appeared in small roles as an actress or an extra in several silent films. It was during this time she met another Berliner, Fritz Kraencke, already a well-established set designer and cinematographer in the German film industry. Martha and Fritz were married in Berlin in 1914.
Fritz Kraencke was exempted from military service during the First World War, and continued a successful career in silent films in Germany. He designed sets for the German Staatsoper, an opera house, and for an opera festival called Bayreuth.
In March of 1920, their only child, Herbert Guenter Kraencke, was born in Berlin, Brandenburg, Germany.
In 1926, Fritz accepted the position as a set designer for the Los Angeles Grand Opera, and the family left Berlin to become members of the Hollywood/Los Angeles entertainment world. They sailed from Bremen, Germany, to America on the SS George Washington, arriving in New York Harbor on October 22, 1926. They then headed for their new home in Los Angeles
Renouncing any allegiance to Germany’s Third Reich, Martha and Fritz became citizens of the United States in 1929.
Fritz Kraencke had a successful theater career in Los Angeles for many years. They had money and prestige, and they traveled. Before WWII, the family traveled to Germany, Hawaii and Mexico. Their final trip back to Germany was in 1937. Judging by the trunks of beautiful clothes found in Martha’s apartment after her death, the Kraencke’s lived a glamorous and elegant life. Among Martha’s stunning wardrobe were many with original designer labels from Paris and New York
Martha’s world collapsed in 1947. As reported in the Los Angeles Times of December 2, 1947, early Monday morning, Dec. 1, Martha telephoned her son Herbert because her husband Fritz was missing from their home at West Bluff Place in San Pedro, a section of Los Angeles. As Herbert told the police, he contacted the Coast Guard after going to Point Fermin, near his parent’s home. There he dropped a dime in one of the telescopes pointed out to sea. He saw what he feared was his father’s body floating in the ocean. His fears came true; it was the body of Fritz Kraencke. Because of the bruises on Mr. Kraenck’s face and head, the police were at first suspicious that his death may have been caused by foul play. However, both Martha and Herbert told the police that Fritz was despondent over financial problems. To them, suicide seemed to be a probability. Officially, the coroner did rule that death was by drowning in the Pacific Ocean—suicide. Fritz Kraencke was 57 years old.
Following his father’s death, Herbert, a surveyor, moved to a home at Lake Ballinger, a few miles from Edmonds. Martha joined her son. She began riding the bus in the early morning to downtown Edmonds. There she would walk all day and in the evening she took the bus back to her son’s home at the lake.
In the mid-1950s, Herbert moved back to California. By this time, Martha had become attached to the Northwest and Puget Sound. She moved to a small bungalow near downtown Edmonds. For the remainder of her life she lived in her little apartment at #3, Phillip’s Court, 303 Fourth Avenue North. From this spot, she continued her daily solitary walks.
Doug Margeson, in an article published in the Edmonds Tribune-Review about Martha Kraencke following her death, stated that “Everyone who lived and worked in downtown Edmonds knew who she was, but only a few knew her.” He continued: “Local kids believed she lived in a haunted house and worked as a foreign spy.” Mr. Margeson’s article included remarks from the few people who did get to know Martha Kraencke. Once or twice a week, she stopped by the D-Drive-In, a well-known and popular gathering spot on the southeast corner of Sixth and Main. There she would have a cup of coffee with a young man who worked at the drive-in. She exchanged greetings with people as she passed by. Helen Reynolds knew Martha for almost 30 years, and Martha became one of her favorite photo subjects. However, even Ms. Reynolds admitted that no one was allowed to come too close.
The newspaper article went on to say, “Once or twice a week she stopped by the Edmonds West Tavern—or the Sail In, or Engel’s—to have a loganberry flip. Usually she kept to herself. Occasionally, however, her carefully cultivated reserve dropped away and she showed flashes of warm, sometimes ribald humor.”
Martha seemed to have set routes for her walks. Downtown storekeepers often claimed they could set their clocks or watches from the time she walked past their doorways. Her coffee-time friend remembered her schedule. “She left her bungalow at Fourth and Edmonds Streets at 7 a.m. She walked down to Sunset Avenue, took in the view, and then went over to Main Street. She usually had breakfast at Brownie’s Café on Fourth St. From there she walked various routes. She usually stopped for a cup of coffee at D-Drive-In. After a little conversation with the cook and other customers, she was on her way again. Sometimes in the afternoon, she stopped at the IGA store at Fifth and Dayton where she visited with acquaintances. Then she walked some more; often well into the night.”
Martha was an accomplished pianist and sometimes played from memory to a noisy crowd at the Edmonds West Tavern. The listeners would sit in silence as Martha played a complicated piece by Beethoven.
In 1974, Martha fell and broke her hip. It didn’t seem to faze her, and soon after leaving the hospital, Martha, with the help of a walker, was out and walking again.
For many years, Martha’s next door neighbor Mrs. Jackson kept an eye on her. At night before she went to bed, Martha waved to her neighbor across the yard and then she pulled the window shade. In the morning Martha would raise the shade to let her neighbor know that all was well. On the morning of Sept. 8, 1977, the shade remained closed. At the age of 83, Martha’s walking days were over. She died peacefully in her own bed.
At the request of her son and his wife, Martha’s body was cremated and her ashes were sent to California to be placed next to those of her husband Fritz.
A few years ago I wrote Martha’s story for another publication. It was later picked up by Google, and Martha’s granddaughter in California saw the story, contacted me, and then sent me photos from the family album. Thus we can see Martha as a young woman; her husband Fritz, looking every bit the Hollywood tycoon; and a young Kraencke family enjoying a day at the beach.
— By Betty Lou Gaeng
A long-time resident of Lynnwood, Betty Lou Gaeng is a genealogist, historian, researcher and writer who is active in volunteer work for Lynnwood’s Heritage Park Partners Advisory Committee and the Alderwood Manor Heritage Association at Heritage Park. She is also a member of the League of Snohomish County Heritage Organizations (LOSCHO) and the South County Historical Society and Museum. Gaeng is the author of two books: “Etched in Stone,” which is the history of the Edmonds Museum memorial monument, and “Chirouse” about a Catholic missionary priest who came from France to Washington Territory in 1847 and became a father figure and friend to the Puget Sound area’s Native people.