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.