A Question of Faith?
Scam artist or healer? Cokato native Earl Tracy was a controversial
by Kay Johnson
figure 60 years ago, and continues to be today.
Many of the residents that live at the Tracy Apartments just off the corner of Broadway Avenue and Fourth Street in Cokato have never heard of the building’s namesake - Earl Tracy.
They probably would be amazed to learn that during the Great Depression, Tracy was said to have earned about $1,000 a day from donations given to him by grateful customers that traveled to this small west-central Minnesota community for one reason and one reason only - to seek his healing touch.
Although Cokato healer Earl Tracy died before she was born, Marienne Kreitlow knows him intimately. She was introduced to him more than five years ago when a friend told her about him. She used the story as a basis for "Earl Tracy," a song she wrote and performed.
Tracy’s story continued to intrigue Kreitlow well after the song was finished, and several of her colleagues and fans wanted to hear more.
Juxtaposed with other responsibilities, she has spent the past several years researching his life through yellowed newspaper clippings, written accounts and personal interviews with elderly people who still remember him.
She is using the information as the basis for the script and music she is writing for the stage production, "Earl Tracy: The Musical."
Kreitlow was born in Cokato and raised on a farm near Howard Lake, and now makes her home near Houston, Texas. She graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in religious studies. From there, she went on to hone her musical skills in New England where she studied voice with Susan Robbins, artistic director of Libana, and piano with Bruce Katz of Boston.
Kreitlow is a vocal performer as well as a songwriter, poet and multi-instrumentalist. She describes her work as being on the cutting edge of adult alternative acoustic music. Kreitlow has four albums to her credit including her most recent CD, "The Mortal Moon." Her work has been called "joyfully sensuous" by Dirty Linen magazine and "beguiling" by Minneapolis publication, City Pages.
Sitting on a folding chair in the Centennial Room at the Cokato Public Library, Marienne Kreitlow brushed her long chestnut-colored hair away from her face as she talked about "Earl Tracy: The Musical."
"I came to this project as a songwriter," said Kreitlow when asked about the musical she is writing. "The whole concept started with a song called "Earl Tracy" about five years ago or so. I was coming back to do a couple of concerts in the area and I wanted to write some songs that were more regionally based.
A friend of mine that lives near Cokato told me about Earl Tracy. I wrote the song ‘Earl Tracy’ based on what she had told me. It’s one of those songs that people listen to and say "You know that ‘Earl Tracy’ song I can’t get it out of my head."
The Idea For "Earl Tracy: The Musical"
Kreitlow shared toe song and story of Earl Tracy with her cousin, a technical writer from Chicago, who wanted to write a play about his life. Kreitlow opted for a musical. The two of them collaborated until it became evident that her cousin did not have the time to devote to the project.
By now, Kreitlow has already invested a fair amount of research into the project and in her words was "addicted." She talked to several people about writing the script, but didn’t find any interest. At that point, she had her own concept of the man and his work. "It’s like birthing a baby," she said. "It becomes your own."
After some soul-searching, she made the decision to forge ahead on her own. She had the support for this project from her husband Jerry Ford, who teaches at a community college near their home and has been involved in the technical end of theatre production for many years.
Kreitlow sat down and began writing the script a year ago last Christmas. In early March of this year, she had completed the text for the script and has written all the music. She is now in the process of fine tuning her orchestral score and refining the script and then she will test the play in a workshop environment to see how it performs on stage.
"When I first heard the Earl Tracy story from my fiend, I didn’t believe it," admitted Kreitlow. "I thought it was hyped up. When she told me about him, I thought she was exaggerating not only about what he could do, but also his effect on the town - that the restaurants were always busy and that there wasn’t a room left in town.’ I thought, ‘sure, sure.’
"I think a lot of my interest came from the contrast between who he was and the community where he was born and came back to several years before he died. There was definitely a conflict between Tracy and the town. He didn’t the norm. He was very charismatic. I can’t tell you the number of people I interviewed that told me, ‘Those piercing brown eyes of his would look right through you.’
Kreitlow describes Tracy as a faith healer although she in not quite comfortable with that term because it conjures up pictures of holy rollers in tent shows. She said that today he would probably be called a medical intuitive - someone who helps doctors to diagnose patients.
"I admire Earl’s individuality in a town that probably did not approve of him. I feel like he was himself," she said.
Kreitlow discovered through many personal interviews that feelings about Earl Tracy were still strong 60 years after his death. Some of those she talked with believed him to be a sham artist and others believed he healed them.
"There was a woman I had interviewed who had been in a serious car accident at that time," said Kreitlow. "She went to him very frequently for a year straight to get help. She’s convinced he helped her.
"Again, this is open to interpretation," added Kreitlow. "Someone else may say - he helped her because she thought he was helping her. In the script, I’m presenting the negatives and positives - he’s just an interesting man.
"For some people (the story of Earl Tracy) is in conflict with their faith, and for others it’s not. This is one of the main conflicts. He did not profess Christianity as his method of healing. He was not a religious man outwardly. He attended services very infrequently, and when he went, he might leave a $100 bill in the collection plate.
"It’s important to note that in talking about Tracy, that I’m repeating the stories that people told me so I’m interpreting them.
"I believe he was psychic," she added quietly. "I also believe he had a healing energy. He did some healings long distance when someone would come and tell him ‘My son is too sick to bring in.’ Earl would say, ‘he’s being taken care of.’ The person would go back home and the child would be well. He also told people when he couldn’t help them.
One woman brought her baby to Earl and he said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you’ and the baby died. He was also known to do things like point to a tooth and say, ‘You’ve got an infected tooth, check it out with the dentist.’
"I think he loved the people that he worked with very intensely," she said. "That was honest, whether people thought well of him or not. The other thing I think is that he never really felt free to share his ideas about his healing. I think in some ways he was very isolated.
"What I think it is real important to note in this, too," added Kreitlow, "is that when I interviewed people whether they liked him or believed in his work - it has been a blessing for me because it’s been a way of getting to know people and their personal stories - to feel the richness of life around here.
It’s been a way for me to appreciate the people and their lives - their vitality. As a result of doing this research, it connected me to this time period. As I got into this, I realized it wasn’t that long ago. I thought it was fascinating to see the historical continuum and how we fit into it.
"I guess working with someone like Earl Tracy is like what a novelist must do with a character," added Kreitlow. "You start to develop a feel, it’s almost like a rapport. Obviously some of this is my projection of what I feel is important or interesting. I feel like I’ve made a connection with him."
Producing a musical is an expensive proposition, but after testing the play this spring and then completing any fine tuning that is necessary in this presentation, she hopes to be able to stage it.
The Life of Earl Tracy
Last summer Kreitlow presented a program at the Cokato Museum, "The Making of Earl Tracy: The Musical." She shared her work-in-progress with one of the largest audiences ever to attend a museum presentation.
According to a press release issued at that time by the museum, the story develops through a series of scenes based on Earl’s young adulthood - as a proprietor of a saloon in South Dakota serving bootleg to Native Americans; finding his gift in the trenches of World War 1 - Tracy comes to adulthood as a healer.
Sometime during his second or third marriage he made a connection with an ex-Episcopalian priest, E. G. Erickson, and held a "Spiritual Clinic" at St. Bartholomew’s Swedish Church in New York City. In 1921, Tracy left New York for a whirlwind tour of Europe, where he was invited to treat the Swedish royal family.
Returning to America, he swept through most of the country, ending up in Chicago - wealthy and well-connected. He helped police solve cases, started a playground equipment company, and lived high on the town. He made a fortune - and lost it.
In the early 1930’s, during the height of his high-rolling days in Chicago, he received word that his father, John Tracy, was dying. He returned home in 1932 to take care of his mother, and announced his chief aim in life was to "spread sunshine."
As word spread about his healing powers, he would see 100 or more people each day, from all across the country. One account tells of a charter service that brought busloads of people from Minneapolis.
In his hometown he was congenial and friendly. He was strikingly handsome with fine features and dark, piercing eyes. His charismatic personality and good looks probably helped contribute to the fact that during his lifetime he had five wives.
When he returned to Cokato, there were mothers who remembered Tracy from his younger years, a time when daughters were cautioned not be become friendly with him.
His new home became a mecca for the ill. During the mid-1930s, Tracy’s "pilgrims" as people called them, were a beneficial source of revenue for the town. The hotels were full, restaurants were always busy, and many townspeople had a room to rent to Earl’s visitors.
Tracy developed pneumonia before Christmas 1938, and he died on Christmas Day.
Some Thoughts About Earl Tracy
The late Carlton Lee, former editor of the Cokato Enterprise, long time board member of the Cokato Museum, and unofficial Earl Tracy historian, is credited by Kreitlow as well as Mike Worcester, director of the Cokato Museum, as the source for much that is known about Earl Tracy.
"I hadn’t been here very long when Carlton Lee came in one day and started to talk about Earl Tracy, the man who had healing powers," said Worcester. "Carlton essentially was the unofficial Earl Tracy historian. He had made several audio tapes about Tracy and had written some programs about him for the museum.
He had accumulated quite a bit of material including many personal recollections of people who knew Earl Tracy and were served by him.
"My initial reaction was every town has someone like Earl Tracy - an eccentric character that stands out larger than life - especially viewed through the lens of past reflection. I was intrigued by him," said Worcester. "I found his story against the backdrop of the Great Depression to be interesting."
"Was he a sham artist or could he really heal people? I’m not sure," he admitted. "If someone believes in something strong enough, they could really believe that he had healed them. Maybe that’s part of it. So many people believed so strongly that he had these abilities, that in the end he was able to heal them - if nothing else than through the power of their own mind."
This article first appeared in the 24 March 1998 edition of the Hutchinson Leader. Reprinted with permission. ©Hutchinson Leader, 1998.