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Written in stoneware: Medicine Hat’s industrial heart now a creative hub

MEDICINE HAT, Alta. — A century ago, the Medalta Potteries ceramics factory in Medicine Hat, Alta., was an unpleasant place to be.

There are stories of workers’ boots melting as they removed freshly-fired stoneware from still-scorching kilns. White clay dust clouded the air, causing serious lung disease in many of those toiling there, says Alice Osmond, who manages bookings at the eastern Alberta historic site.

“It really was a hard place to work and people definitely felt the pain,” Osmond says.

Medalta today is a museum, artists’ workspace, archaeological site and cultural hub in Medicine Hat’s Historic Clay District. It hosts weekly farmers markets in the summer along with yoga classes. The old factory’s photogenic weathered brick and vaulted ceilings make it a sought-after wedding venue. It also runs a prestigious residency program for ceramic artists from around the world.

Medalta manufactured crocks, butter churns, jugs, dishes and other ceramics between 1912 and 1954. It was one of many industrial sites to crop up in Medicine Hat last century amid a natural gas boom that provided a cheap and abundant energy source.

The buildings went to ruin after the plant shut down. In the 1970s, Jack Forbes, a University of Alberta ceramics expert and potter, along with Jim Marshall, a local brick muralist, began a decades-long effort to save the site from demolition and restore it.

One of the first things visitors to the old factory see upon entering is the intact foundation of one of the original beehive kilns, so named for their round shapes. Viewed from above through a gap in the floor, the circular formation of red bricks is still an active archaeological site.

Around the corner is a ceramic shop where artists use the same tools as in Medalta’s heyday.

There, artist Lisa Miklash forcefully presses the lever of a jigger machine into a lump of clay.

Aside from herself and a plastic bucket filled with water, Miklash says there’s nothing at her work station that’s less than 100 years old.

The jigger was sold to Medalta second hand in 1912, so there’s no telling how old it really is.

“There was no hand throwing here,” says Miklash, who has been making replica stoneware at Medalta for seven years. “This machine was devised to make symmetrical items very, very quickly.”

Jigger operators were paid per piece, so speed was crucial. Back in the day, some would be fortunate to have an underling, called a runner, to help.

The jigger men had to pay runners out of their own pocket, but it was worth it because they could churn out twice as much.

Thousands of clay artifacts are on display, including novelty ashtrays and antique dinnerware from train dining cars and posh railway hotels. Area antique collector Tony Schlachter has donated 2,500 pieces.

Visitors can explore the inside of the beehive kilns, which would reach temperatures of 1,400 C when they were working. Each brick is fitted precisely and held together with minimal mortar, following a technique that dates back to Medieval times. The spaces are infused with an earthy aroma and the acoustics are ideal for intimate musical performances occasionally held there.

In the area that would have been the factory floor, the original machinery still operates, but with much less force than before. Back when the factory was operational, the machines would have created enough power to shake the structure.

Osmond says her favourite feature of this area are the toilets, which were only concealed by doors when women began working in the factory.

“The great thing about the doors is that people did the same thing that people always do — they carved their names in the doors. So we have the sense of who was working here and where they might have immigrated from, and there’s even a recipe for making glaze carved in there”

Travis Miller, who has lived in Medicine Hat for 16 years, says it’s common for city residents to come across old Medalta products at yard sales.

Sitting down for supper from one of the food trucks at the farmer’s market with his mother and daughters, Miller says he’s long been intrigued by the site’s history.

“In the earlier years, in 2002 when I moved here, it was still in a relative state of inactivity here. They were still kind of deciding what to do,” Miller recalls.

He says he was interested in learning more about the struggles of Medalta employees decades in the past.

“They weren’t good times, but these places took care of a lot of families in this town through the boom.”