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MEDALTA HISTORIC CLAY DISTRICT – THEN AND NOW

Author: Jane Usher

An inveterate traveller, Jane has worked, played and stayed in cities and countries around the world. A writer by inclination and profession, her innate curiosity compels her to explore new cultures and adventures, sharing her impressions with the world at large.

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Silky wet clay spins leisurely in my hands as my creation takes shape on the potter’s wheel. I can’t help but feel the tug of history in this enchanted place. Who worked here over a century ago when Medalta Potteries first started turning local clay into goods that were shipped worldwide? And did they really offer a 3,000 year warranty? What are the stories behind the huge beehive-shaped kilns so rare in North America?

Question Period

I’m one of those pesky people always asking questions. What it boils down to is an innate curiosity and a burning desire to find answers. My friends all call me Question Girl. I have learned to live with it.

So here I am, taking a pottery class at the former clay factory turned museum in Medicine Hat that is now one of Canada’s national historic sites. Not only am I learning how to throw a pot (that’s the lingo), I’m over the moon the class is held in a very cool museum – stuffed with answers to my questions, I do not doubt. Here’s what I discovered.

More than Just the Facts

  • The clay and pottery business in Medicine Hat was the earliest industry in Western Canada – older than coal mining – dating back to the 19th century.
  • Medicine Hat’s humble origins as a tent city full of workers building the Canadian Pacific Railway soon morphed into becoming the largest distribution centre of manufactured goods in Western Canada by the early 1900s.
  • The city sits on a huge reserve of natural gas – one of the largest gas fields in North America. In the early days, gas street lamps were left on day and night. It was cheaper than turning them on and off. Those same gas lamps are still in use today.
  • All this available gas was used to fire the kilns in the clay factories, which had access to abundant supplies of local clay, and there’s tons of the stuff still in the ground.
  • Outside of Medalta, there are very few of these huge beehive-shaped kilns in operation today.
  • Clay was used for everything from pottery, stoneware and dinnerware, to structural stuff like bricks and sewer pipe. I still have my grandmother’s crockpot with the blue Medalta logo, and I make my nine-day pickles in it every year.
  • And yes, there really was a 3,000 year warranty – proclaimed by former Medalta Manager, Charles Pratt in 1928. It will be interesting to see if anyone brings something back in the year, 4,927.

Making History, Old and New

This 150 acre (60 hectare) piece of living history is a fascinating combination of old and new. You can tour the original beehive kilns and wander through the parts of the Medalta property that have been preserved as a museum. Then go visit the artists-in-residence who get to play in the state-of-the-art ceramics studio (where yours truly took Pottery Making 101).

Question Girl learned a whole lot more but I’ll leave it for your own exploration of this amazing place. You can’t do it all in one visit anyway.

One last factoid, just to convince you to visit this wonderful little bit of history in southeastern Alberta: according to Environment Canada (and they ought to know), Medicine Hat is the sunniest city in all of Canada. I think I might retire here and throw pots.

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