Story by Jacquie D. Durand
MEDICINE HAT, ALBERTA — Set in the 150-acre Historic Clay District on the South Saskatchewan River, the Medalta Potteries factory was housed within brick and steel buildings dating from 1912 to the 1930s.
As I approached the courtyard, I was presented with the exterior of three beehive kilns once used for the production of pottery sold across Canada. Walking through the entrance I found many reminders of items once used by my grandmother on the family farm when I was a small child — plates, bowls and butter churns, cups, milk jugs and water coolers of varying sizes — and the memories came flooding back.
After launching as the Medicine Hat Pottery Company, the enterprise changed its name to Medalta Stoneware Limited and then Medalta Potteries Limited. The “Medalta” name was taken from the name of the town (Medicine Hat) combined with the original postal designation for Alberta (Alta).
Medalta Potteries expanded its site to include four beehive kilns built using medieval designs. Locally produced bricks were carefully crafted to fit together without the use of mortar. They relied strictly on gravity to hold them up much the same way as the Inuit igloo is configured. The expansion also included five industrial buildings, a rail line, an internal road network and in-situ machinery over a 3.2-hectare property set along the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). From the 1920s through the 1940s, Medalta was the largest and most successful pottery business west of Toronto, providing 75 per cent of all the pottery made in Canada.
During the 1880s while drilling for a water supply for its workers’ temporary homes in a tent town, the CPR accidentally struck natural gas, beginning the exploration that mapped out one of the largest gas fields in North America. With a seemingly endless supply of the natural resource — which brought heat, light, and power to homes and businesses — Medicine Hat earned the nickname “Gas City.” The sheer abundance of natural gas allowed the city certain extravagances, the most famous of which was the always-on streetlights, which stayed lit day and night because it was cheaper to keep them burning than to pay someone to turn them off. In fact, gas street lamps are still in use in the downtown area. These same natural gas resources provided all the heat necessary for the kilns to fire and glaze the many types of pottery produced here.
While exploring the inside of one such kiln, I noticed tiny archways around the base of the wall. These archways allowed fire to enter the kilns from large gas pipes. In order to monitor the heat levels in the kilns, kiln operators placed pyrometric cones in the oven, allowing them to monitor the firing process.
Pyrometric cones (“Pyro” means “fire”) are made from quality-controlled ceramic materials that will melt and bend at specific temperatures, but do not measure temperature. The cones indicate what the heat in the kiln is doing to the clay or glaze, a process called heat-work. Each cone in turn will bend as it softens from the extreme heat (up to 1,315°C or 2,399 °F), the tip of the cone becoming level with its base at definitive temperatures. A fire pit would run for five days and the whole process from a clay ball start to a painted and glazed finish would take about two weeks.
An Alberta Museum Is Born
Medalta closed as a pottery factory in 1954 and, after 42 years, reopened as a museum in 1998. You can view a number of digs on-site as you learn about the machinery and methods used to prepare, shape, fire and glaze the clay into long-lasting pieces of pottery in the early- to mid-1900s. The facility is now also rented out for multiple purposes, including exhibitions, weddings and receptions.
As I was touring the production side of the site, I met one of the potters who still uses some of the original methods of clay manipulation. Lisa Miklash utilizes a Weeks Machine to create the rudimentary shape for a five-gallon crock from 44 pounds (20 kilograms) of clay before doing the final shaping by hand. Lisa will also use a stoneware jigger that is more than 100 years old when making a 12-inch bowl.
As stated by Alice Osmond, Museum Guide Supervisor, “Medalta is preserving an important piece of Canada’s industrial history, and, at the same time, developing that history’s connection to contemporary culture, ceramic art and our community. That’s what makes this organization thrive and continue to grow.”
Farther along we were looking at pieces of antique machinery, including the Weeks Machine, a jigger and even the Schuster Spin Press. The Schuster was used to make bowls, small plates and even flower pots. Operators working on the Schuster could make up to 4,000 pieces per day.
Entering into another area of the museum, I spied the worker’s toilets tucked away in a corner of the Old Factory. It was not until women took up work at the factory that doors were installed for the sake of privacy. I was told that the walls are covered with “bathroom philosophy”, from mathematical equations to rough sketches of Medalta’s iconic logos. Unfortunately, due to safety precautions, I was not allowed to view these scribblings for myself.
After my visit to the Medalta Potteries Historic Site I decided to check out the clay pottery I still had from my grandmother’s farm. Lo and behold, all proved to be from Medalta Potteries, much cherished family hand-me-downs of some original Canadiana, and mute testimony to a once thriving industry.
MORE ABOUT MEDALTA POTTERIES NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
Address: 713 Medalta Ave. SE, Medicine Hat, AB (see map below)
Medicine Hat Tourism