The History Of Medicine Hat

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The Indigenous

Located on the traditional land of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the bison would often migrate through for centuries, providing a vital resource for the Indigenous of the area in the summer. In the winter, the location of Medicine Hat was also a camping area for the Indigenous prior to the arrival of Europeans.

One of the reasons that Medicine Hat was a gathering place was that there were cottonwood trees in the area that attracted the bison herds, and the river in the area that served as an early highway for the Indigenous traveling across the landscape. The area was also used by the Cree and Assiniboine. Prior to the Blackfoot and others, the Medicine Hat area was used for thousands of years by previous Indigenous cultures.

Nearby to Medicine Hat is the Saamis Site, a provincial historic site, which I am going to talk about in the next section.

Today, the Medicine Hat area sits on Treaty 4 and Treaty 7 land.

The Saamis Site

Nearby to Medicine Hat, near Seven Persons Creek, is the Saamis Archeological Site. The site, which covers 36 hectares, also includes a small bison jump site and it was used extensively by the Indigenous for centuries. The site is believed to be a winter and early spring campsite that was used repeatedly between 1390 and 1820.

The site is divided into two terraces. The lower terrace contains a bison butchering site and meat processing area while the upper terrace has ample evidence of camping activities, bone concentrations and fire broken rocks. Artifacts have also been found at the site and are now housed at the Royal Alberta Museum.

Rare artifacts found at the site include glass beads, a metal arrow point, bone and shell beads, a shell pendant and pottery.

Today, the site has become an on-leash dog park, along with an off-leash water access point. Park users are asked to stay on designated trails as the city attempts to maintain the integrity of the site.

Experts believe that through its use not only centuries ago but even thousands of years ago, there may be as much as 83 million artifacts buried at the site.

Founding of the Community

One of the most common questions when it comes to Medicine Hat is where did the name come from. There are several legends related to it. One involves a merman river serpent named Soy-yee-daa-bee, who appeared to a hunter and told him to sacrifice his wife to get mystical powers which would manifest in the form of a special hat.

Another legend around the name speaks of a battle between the Blackfoot and the Cree centuries ago. In the battle, a retreating Cree medicine man lost his headdress in the South Saskatchewan River, hence the name.

In 1883, the Canadian Pacific Railway was being built through the area and when it reached what would be Medicine Hat, the local settlers started a townsite and gave it the name relating to the Indigenous legend. Before long, Medicine Hat quickly began to grow. By 1889, the first hospital west of Winnipeg was built in the community. The CPR, seeing the potential for the area, made the town a divisional point for the railroad.

On Oct. 31, 1898, Medicine Hat became a town and on May 9, 1906, it became a city. The community would continue to grow and between 1909 and 1914, an economic boom pushed the population to more than 10,000 people. Before long, brick works, pottery factories, glass bottle plants, flour mills and coal mines sprang up and Medicine Hat became known as the Pittsburgh of the West.

Today, Medicine Hat is the sixth largest city in Alberta with a population of 63,000 people.

The POW Camp

During the Second World War, prisoner of war camps sprang up around Canada and one of those camps was located just outside of Medicine Hat. Called Camp 132, it opened in 1943 and covered 50 hectares, with the ability to hold 12,000 prisoners. That was no small number considering Medicine Hat at the time had a population of about the same size.

In all, 37,000 prisoners of war were sent to remote camps in Canada, and the two largest were at Medicine Hat and Lethbridge.

For the German soldiers who found themselves at the camp, they would often do farm labour inside and outside the camp, and also assist local businesses in Medicine Hat. Generally, conditions were quite good at the camps, and several of the prisoners would begin to speak out against Hitler and the Nazis. This would lead to two prisoners being murdered by fellow inmates for speaking out.

Due to the good treatment at the camp, several of the prisoners of war decided to come back to Canada after the war because they found the conditions and opportunities to be suited to their needs. The prisoners who worked in the fields also formed close bonds with the families they assisted and that would last after the war as well.

The camp would cease to operate in 1946 and most of the buildings were sold and dismantled.

Today, Rhine Hall, the former drill hall, is one of the remaining structures from the camp and today it serves as an important agricultural hall in the community. The area that was the prisoner of war camp would become the agricultural fair location, and Vistula Hall, which was the theatre and cinema at the camp, became the Patterson Armoury. 

The Worlds Largest Teepee

As you drive through Medicine Hat, one of the most impressive structures that you will see is the massive teepee that rises above the surrounding landscape.

Built in 1988 for the Calgary Winter Olympics, the Saamis Teepee is a tribute to the Indigenous heritage of Canada. After the Winter Games, the structure was moved to Medicine Hat where it was installed and opened on Oct. 20, 1991.

The teepee is built entirely of steel with a concrete foundation and features 10 large circular storyboards that depict aspects of Indigenous culture and history. In all, the teepee weighs 800 tons and rises 215 feet in the air and has a diameter of 160 feet. In all, there are 960 bolts that hold the entire structure together.

Just below the teepee in the Seven Persons Coulee is the Saamis Archeological Site that I spoke of earlier. You can take part in a guided walking tour through the area to learn more about the Indigenous.

The Medicine Hat Clay Industries National Historic District

During the first half of the 20th century, Medicine Hat was the clay capital of Western Canada. Brick manufacturing began in the community in the 1880s and by 1907, the early brick yards were displaced by larger businesses thanks to the municipal incentives offered by Medicine Hat, as well as the direct access to the CPR and the low-cost natural gas.

Early manufacturers who built products out of the abundant clay offered by the Medicine Hat area were Alberta Clay Products, Medicine Hat Brick and Tile and the Medicine Hat Pottery Company. These were the three main pre-1914 factories that formed the core of the community’s clay product industry and it helped create a boom period for the area during those early years of growth.

The Medicine Hat Clay Industries National Historic Site is situated in the North Flats and it includes a combination of historical buildings that run for 1.2 kilometres along the rail line including the former Alberta Clay Products factory site, the National Porcelain Company site and the Hycroft Pottery site. 

On these sites, there are ceramic pottery moulds and products at the Hycroft plant, equipment associated with the early phases of brick building and relic pieces of gas machinery. At the Alberta Clay Products site, there is still a down-draft kiln that is a solid brick construction with glazed interior wall surfaces. Tunnels and other kilns are also located at the site.

At the Medalta Potteries National Historic Site of Canada, there are five interconnected buildings, consisting of one detached building and a row of four beehive kilns that are grouped together into a cohesive factory complex.

The entire site operated extensively from around 1909 until just after the Second World War.

It would become a National Historic Site of Canada on March 28, 2000.

St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church National Historic Site

If old churches are something you enjoy seeing on a road trip, then the St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church is a place to visit in Medicine Hat. Built between 1912 and 1914, the church has two large spires that rise up into the air and which made it the tallest structure for a time in the early years of the city.

The church was designed by Manley N. Cutter, who used reinforced concrete to build the structure. Due to the use of modern materials, and the French Gothic design, the church represents a unique blend between the old and the new. The bells in the church were also cast in France in 1914 and shipped over to Canada prior to the outbreak of the First World War.

Over the course of the next century, various changes would be made on the church. A hammer beam ceiling was installed between 1931 and 1932, while rose windows on the east and west sides were added in 1955. In 1977, a copper exterior roofing was added to the structure to prevent the leaking of the original concrete roof.

Bruno Gerussi

Born in Medicine Hat on May 7, 1928 to a coal miner and his wife, he would live his very early life in the community before the family moved to Exshaw so that his father could work as a section man for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Growing up in Exshaw, he would attend the Banff School of Fine Arts and then move with his family to New Westminster.

As a young man in his 20s, he would join the Stratford Festival in its second season and would perform in stage productions around Canada and the United States. One of his biggest moments during that time came when he played Romeo in the first Stratford Festival performance of Romeo and Juliet.

Two years later, he would make an early appearance on television as Feste in a TV production of Twelfth Night.

From 1967 to 1968, he would host a CBC morning show on the radio called Gerussi Words and Music.

In 1972, his most iconic role would be given to him when he was cast as Nick Adonidas on The Beachcombers, one of the longest running shows in Canadian history with 387 episodes from 1972 to 1990. The show would make him famous across Canada and allow him to host a second show on CBC called Celebrity Cooks during the 1970s and 1980s, hosting 478 episodes that featured celebrities such as Bob Crane, David Letterman and Jean Beliveau. He would also host the first Genie Awards in 1980. He would also receive a Gemini Award nomination for his performance in The Beachcombers in 1990, the last season of the show.

He would pass away on Nov. 21, 1995 from a heart attack in his Vancouver home where he lived with his partner Judge Nancy Morrison. In 1996, he would be presented the Earle Grey Award for Lifetime Achievement posthumously, with his children Rico and Tina accepting the award on his behalf.

The Rainmaker Arrives

During the first part of the 20th century, Charles Hatfield was one of the most famous men in North America thanks to his claims to be able to create rain by using a secret mixture of 23 chemicals in evaporating tanks that he said attracted rain. He would travel throughout the continent, claiming to have had 500 successes, with his most notable being in San Diego in 1916. Council offered to pay him $10,000 once their reservoir was filled. What followed was one of the worst rain storms in the city’s history, that destroyed two dams, several homes and killed 20 people.

In 1921, Hatfield would come to Medicine Hat to bring the rain to the parched area of Alberta.

In January 1921, city council decided that it would pay Hatfield $2,000 for every inch of rain that he was able to produce, for a total of $8,000 for four inches spread over a 200 mile circle around Medicine Hat. In today’s funds, that $8,000 would be $106,000. Anything over four inches would just be free and no extra charge would be given.

Hatfield would set up his rain making plant 20 miles from Medicine Hat at Chappice Lake and the agreement stated that Hatfield would get credit for half the rain that fell between May and August.

Hatfield would arrive in Medicine Hat at the end of April, and he began to erect towers at Chappice Lake in order to bring the rain that he promised. Upon his arrive in Medicine Hat, he was greeted by thee executive of the United Agricultural Association, and then taken to his hotel before he began work near to the community.

By July, very little rain had begun to fall in the area and Hatfield was given another chance to make good on his promise at the beginning of July, and he got back to work on his production plant at the lake. By this point, his popularity was very low in the area.

Whatever he did, it must have worked, or perhaps it was just entering the rainy season for the area. By the end of July, the Medicine Hat area had enjoyed several inches of rain and Hatfield was paid the full $8,000 for his services after brining 4.24 inches to farmers who were very appreciative of his help, if there had been any at all.

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