Visiting Alberta’s Past
Spending a Few Days in ‘Hell’s Basement'
by John Althouse
Condensed from Our German Roots newsletter, v.3 #6 (Jun 2013)
On a visit to Medicine Hat, Rudyard Kipling stated that the city had “all hell for a basement”. I was invited to make two presentations at Medicine Hat on May 1st of this year. So, I headed off to ‘Hell’s Basement’, a euphemism inspired by the plentiful source of fuel, natural gas, which lies below the area. However, ted with a single piece of most beautiful, and undoubtedly, valuable treasure. However, contrary to the sentiments evoked by such an ominous title, I had a pleasant visit in which I learned a great deal about this southern Alberta city.
My first stop on the tour was the Esplanade. The Esplanade is a multi-purpose facility in the downtown area which includes a small museum chronicling the history of the city and an archive. However, our primary purpose in visiting the Esplanade was to see a statue which has been sculpted and then erected in front of it since my last visit to Medicine Hat. This statue is significant for many reasons. First, it celebrates the contributions of Germans from Russia to the area, especially those who were its pioneers. Medicine Hat and District Germans from Russia Society initiated this project, carried out the work necessary for this project, and secured the funding necessary to make it a reality. This initiative, known as the Legacy Project, is a testament to the efforts of Medicine Hat branch’s German group. These words are inscribed on its base:
Germans from Russia and their descendants dedicate this monument to all immigrant pioneer settlers in Western Canada as a tribute to their sacrifice in building this new land of freedom and opportunity.
The day after this, I headed to the Medalta Potteries National Historical Site. As one enters the site, just behind the registration desk, there is an enlarged black and white photograph of a large group of workers. I was told that this photo was taken in 1929. Several of the workers in the photo do not appear to have reached the legal age for employment. This was confirmed by one of the women, a member of Medicine Hat Branch of AGS. She told me that she had worked for Medalta but at a date later than 1929, and that she was only 14 years of age when she started there because she had modified her age for practical reasons of being hired. I suspect many sons and daughters of the German immigrant families in the area worked there as these young peope knew and were raised in a milieu where hard physical labour was valued. This was a legacy that employers appreciated in their employees.
Later, you proceed to a large room at the back of the complex. Here, you view the collection of A. T. (Tony) Schlachter of many thousands of pottery products made by Medalta and other pottery plants of the area. The variety of these pieces is astounding. These include items such as ashtrays with various hotel logos emblazoned upon them, plates designed for the Stampede Futurities, ornaments both tacky and not tacky, such as bison figurines. Pieces of the green pottery which once adorned many homes in Canada, water coolers for Moyers School Supplies for schools that lacked running water, jugs suited for the storage of various liquids, a butter churn, and earthenware crocks of every size and description.
Near this display were the entrances to the four large kilns where the wares were produced in the plant were fired. A number of the kilns had entrances that allowed you to enter them. The entrances to these large kilns are not very tall, less than six feet. I suspect this was to minimize the amount of heat that could escape from them once sealed and ready for firing. The first kiln was as it would have appeared to a worker about to load it for firing. It was a single brick-lined room rising up and forming into a domed brick ceiling, a single round brick column in the centre of the kiln supporting the weight of the ceiling. The structure seems to be a cathedral of the pottery craft. The second kiln was a real surprise. Lining the walls of the kiln on four tiers were earthenware crocks of every size, shape, and description coming from the various plants of the area. As I looked around in awe, I was certain that I had arrived in ‘sauerkarut heaven’, as this utilitarian urn was the vessel in which this favorite dish was initially brought into existence. I could almost hear the clucking of approval from my ancestral grandmothers as if they had the good fortune to view such a storeroom for the very first time.
From here, you proceed to the area where many of the machines that were used to process the clay were kept. This area has not been restored with the machines still in varying states of decay. It provides a historic echo of manufacturing as it once was. Here, you may hear the hushed voices of ghosts of workers who once toiled inside these walls. Then, you enter a working pottery shop where facsimiles of the original wares are made for sale in the site gift shop. Here, the working conditions are much more employee-friendly than those that were observed in the old plant. There is a benched area where you can watch the potters ply their trade.
In Medicine Hat, there are three stops that may provide useful information for the genealogists. These are the Medicine Hat and District Genealogical Society (AGS Branch), the Medicine Hat Public Library, and the Esplanade Archive. Each of these sites has an excellent website which details their collections and provides other information on the area. These websites are found at:
Following Clark Lang’s recent article in Relatively Speaking, v.40 #4. I wanted to visit the remnants of the POW camp in Medicine Hat. During WWII, Medicine Hat was home to a prisoner of war camp, Camp 132. It housed 12, 500 German prisoners from its establishment in 1943 until shortly after the end of the war. A rail spur line took prisoners directly to the camp site. If you make to the Medicine Hat fair grounds where the camp was situated, you can see the single gray building that remains from the camp. On one side of the building is a small cairn and a metal plaque bearing testament to its past. In the museum at the Esplanade, there is a small display on the camp. The display has an original door from the camp, which is rather iconic, a large photo of the guard tower, an enlarged copy of a local newspaper, a German uniform, and a ship in a bottle, likely a product of the craft program for prisoners similar to those secured by one of my uncles who was a member of the Canadian Army and served as a guard at two of the camps near Thunder Bay during the war.
There is much to see in the Medicine Hat area of interest to historians and genealogists who have ties to the city and area around it. The Esplanade also has some resources that relate to areas of southwestern Saskatchewan. Remember, until 1905 the land including Medicine Hat and extending some distance west of it was not in Alberta but rather was part of the District of Assiniboia, NWT. Come to this wonderful city and its surrounding area to enjoy all that it has to offer.
Appeared in Relatively Speaking, v.41 #3 (Aug 2013)