Music is in the air in downtown Medicine Hat as I duck into one of the city’s oldest coffee roasteries, the Madhatter, to join tour guide Jace Anderson as he shows a group of international visitors around his city. The place is hopping, and the young, new owners are roasting a small batch of beans in the back, showing off their technique as they send rich, toasted aromas wafting out onto the street.
This scene is typical in Medicine Hat these days. A place that was once seen by outsiders as an agricultural and industry town now comes across more like Anderson himself: young, entrepreneurial and maybe a tad quirky. He’s a storyteller who seems to gather information as often as he dispenses it. He says hello to nearly everyone we pass by, and as we wait for everyone in our group to arrive, he talks about a recent family vacation — to a campground just outside Medicine Hat.
These days, the prairie city thrives with new energy that extends from its unlikely coffee scene and burgeoning breweries to streets filled with people taking in events such as Jazz Fest. We wander past the Monarch, the oldest movie theatre in Canada, public art and the city’s colourful murals, including one that tells the story of Hell’s Basement, a nickname coined by U.K. literary icon Rudyard Kipling in 1907, inspired by the region’s vast underground stores of natural gas. “This part of the country seems to have all hell for a basement, and the only trap door appears to be in Medicine Hat,” he wrote.
Today the city’s quirky name (and quirkier nickname) are badges of honour (the latter even inspired a famous Canadian rock song). As Anderson describes it, local indigenous people called the place Saamis, which, in the Blackfoot language, describes the headdress of a medicine man. A mapmaker in Toronto shortened and simplified the translation, and it stuck.
Anderson guides us into the Station Coffee Co., where local performer Christie Kurpjuweit sings and plays her guitar in the front window. Owner Jeremy Knodel chats with everyone, bringing out iced Americanos made with locally roasted beans, and chewy gluten-free brownies that are among the best I’ve had, gluten or no. “We want this place to feel like home, like you’re part of our family,” he says. Regulars are welcomed by name, the baristas behind the counter already anticipating their drink orders.
With a population of less than 70,000, there are a whopping six independent coffee shops and three coffee roasters in Medicine Hat, fuelling a community of artists and gatherers, entrepreneurs and creative types, and helping give the city a close-knit feel.
We walk past artists’ studios and mom-and-pop eateries. A young man asks for directions to the outdoor public piano — inspired by the current atmosphere, he wants to go play. A block off the river, the Esplanade Arts & Heritage Centre houses an art gallery, museum, music education and discovery centre, public archives and a 700-seat theatre with some of the best acoustics in the country.
We stroll toward the Finlay Bridge, the oldest truss bridge in Canada, connecting the north (Riverside) and south (downtown) of Medicine Hat across the South Saskatchewan River. That river also provided the city with one of its calling cards: clay-rich banks that, Anderson tells us, locals would blow up with explosives to access good-quality material that was ideal for manufacturing brick and ceramics. Combined with the abundance of natural gas to fuel pottery kilns, Medicine Hat became a major supplier of clay products, an industry that kept the city going through the instability of the First World War.
In the Historic Clay District, Medalta has become a working museum, with a world-renowned artist-in-residence program, rotating exhibitions, workshops, a gallery and contemporary ceramics studio. There’s a bustling evening market in the summer, a Christmas market in December, and music festivals and performances around the calendar.
The city’s history has also influenced its two breweries, Medicine Hat Brewery, which began making beer in 1912, and the newer Hell’s Basement, both with sleek new taprooms decked out with historical paraphernalia. Both have brews named after local businessmen and stagecoach drivers, streets and neighbourhoods, railroads, buildings, and steam-powered paddle ships on the South Saskatchewan River.
It’s an easy city to familiarize yourself with, even if you don’t have a tour guide to show you around. History is everywhere, and there are locals proud to share their stories with anyone eager to get to know Medicine Hat better — basement and all.