Martha Kraencke, the Walking Lady of Edmonds

By Betty Lou Gaeng | Apr 10, 2019
Courtesy of: Betty Lou Gaeng During her walks, Martha Kraencke always stopped at her favorite bench, on Sunset Avenue in Edmonds.

Every town usually has its colorful characters.

But you’d 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. You could tell she must have been a beauty in her younger years. And she had the appearance of having had riches and importance.

But even after the passing of time, a mystery remained unsolved.

Why did Martha Kraencke walk the streets and alleyways of Edmonds from daylight to darkness?

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. Modern-day technology has uncovered a lot of information, and since everyone just called her Martha – in fact I doubt if many even knew her last name – I will call her Martha while telling her story.

A bench on Sunset

When someone does seem different, children can be cruel, and this was often true when they spotted Martha. Often as she walked, the voices of the children could be heard calling to her “Martha, Martha.”

Martha’s steps seldom faltered. It was as if she didn’t even hear the children’s calls.

As she rested from her walking, Martha could often been seen sitting on her favorite bench along Sunset Avenue, gazing out over the blue waters of Puget Sound. It was here that Helen Reynold’s camera captured Martha’s visage to display in the front window of her photography studio on Main Street in Edmonds.

Martha was wearing one of her favorite outfits: a 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 her bench.

What did Martha see as she gazed out over the waters?

Perhaps she was just enjoying the view and recalling happier times. Maybe she was remembering the time when her beloved husband’s body was found floating in the Pacific Ocean within sight of 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 never 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, gray-eyed blonde, Martha appeared in small roles as an actress or sometimes as 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 also designed sets for the German Staatsoper, an opera house, and for an opera festival called Bayreuth.

In March 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 travel to America, and 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 Oct. 22, 1926. They then headed for their new home in Los Angeles.

U.S. citizens

Renouncing allegiance to Germany’s Third Reich, Martha and Fritz became U.S. citizens in 1929.

Fritz had a successful theater career in Los Angeles for many years. He and Martha had money and prestige, and they traveled. Before WWII, the family traveled back to Germany, and to Hawaii and Mexico. Their final trip to Germany came in 1937.

Judging by the trunks of beautiful clothes found in Martha’s apartment after her death, the Kraenckes lived a glamorous and elegant lifestyle. Among Martha’s stunning wardrobe were many with original designer labels from Paris and New York.

Sometimes happiness comes to an end, and Martha’s world collapsed in 1947.

As reported in the Los Angeles Times Dec. 2, 1947, early Monday morning, Dec. 1, Martha telephoned her son Herbert because 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 parents’ home. There he had 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 his 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 had been 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 southeast of Edmonds. Martha joined her son. Living there, 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.

A small bungalow on Fourth

By this time, Martha had become attached to the Northwest and Puget Sound, and did not return to California with her son. She moved to a small bungalow near downtown Edmonds. For the remainder of her life she lived in her little apartment at No. 3, Phillip’s Court, on Fourth Avenue North.

From this spot, she continued her daily solitary walks.

Reporter Doug Margeson, in an article published about Martha in the Edmonds Tribune-Review following her death, wrote 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.” 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 as she visited with a young man who worked at the drive-in.

She sometimes exchanged greetings with people as she passed them during her walks. Although, Edmonds professional photographer Helen Reynolds knew Martha for almost 30 years, and Martha became one of her favorite photo subjects, Reynolds admitted that no one was allowed to come too close.

The newspaper article went on to say, “Once or twice a week Martha 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 Street. From there she walked various routes.

“She usually stopped for a cup of coffee at the 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 the southwest corner of Fifth and Main, where she visited with acquaintances. Then she walked some more, often well into the night.”

Many remember Martha as an accomplished pianist, and she sometimes played to a crowd at the Edmonds West Tavern. The tavern crowd would sit in silence as Martha played a complicated piece by Beethoven completely from memory – no sheet music was needed.

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 her walker, was out and walking again.

A closed shade

For many years, Martha’s next-door neighbor, Mrs. Jackson, had 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 solitary 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 sent to California to be placed next to those of her husband Fritz.

Many years ago, after writing Martha Kraencke’s story for another publication, it was picked up by Google.

Martha’s granddaughter in California saw the story, contacted me, asked me some questions about Edmonds, and then sent photos from the family album showing a young Martha; her husband Fritz, looking every bit the Hollywood tycoon; and a young Kraencke family enjoying a day at the beach.

 

 

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