November 22nd, 2019

Heritage in the Hat: A world class cultural district with a heart of clay

By Malcolm Sissons on July 6, 2019.

Photo Courtesy Esplanade Archives
Looking north over the Historic Clay District in 1913. Alberta Clay Products and Medalta can be seen. The Brick and Tile is off the photo to the right and Medicine Hat Potteries (Hycroft) does not yet exist.

The recent passing of Jack Forbes, a former executive director of Medalta, is cause for reflection on how far the Historic Clay District has progressed in a few years. A key step on the road to national designation in 1985 was the publishing of the book “Pottery in Alberta: The Long Tradition” by Marylu Antonelli and Jack Forbes in 1978.

Although some might consider Medalta Potteries synonymous with the Historic Clay District, it is really a component part. Designated in 1999 as “The Medicine Hat Clay Industries National Historic Site of Canada”, the site is bounded by the CPR to the south, Clay Avenue to the west, the cutbanks above the river to the east, and Bridge Street to Seven Persons Creek and to its confluence with the South Saskatchewan River to the north. Clay resources, natural gas, proximity to the railway and a growing demand for products allowed various clay industries to flourish a century ago.

Some historical components lie outside these boundaries. Near Allowance Avenue, there was an early brickyard briefly operated about 1900 by Harry C. Yuill. Two additional brickyards were located outside the eastern boundary. Llewellyn Pruitt, a Texan, built a dry-pressed brick plant about 1907 south of the CPR main line just below East Glen. He soon merged with the Purmal operation (Medicine Hat Brick and Tile) leaving nothing behind but a bit of brick rubble.

Just around the bend in the Ross Creek was the Canadian Brick Company (the CBC of its day) where Mr. Hoffmann made soft mud brick for a few years. Rolland Purmal, as a child, remembered him shooting pike in the Ross Creek with a bow and arrow.

Within the boundaries of the Historic Site, Alberta Clay Products, operated by Harlan (“Hop”) Yuill, was the largest producer of brick, sewer pipe, and flue lining in Western Canada. Only the factory foundation and one beehive kiln still exist, but the site is still a hive of activity where Plainsman Clays has produced pottery clays since the 1960s.

Next to the Alberta Clay Products is the Medicine Hat Potteries, later known as Hycroft China. It was a project of the Yuill family and is now owned by the Friends of Medalta. Most of the factory is intact but not currently open to the public pending significant maintenance and restoration.

Following the historic rail spur east, we come to Medalta Potteries, the centre of current historical and artistic operations. With its iconic beehive kilns, old equipment and modern production workshop, it is the heart of the Historic Clay District. Attached to Medalta is the Shaw International Centre for Contemporary Ceramics, established in 1999 as studio space for ceramic artists. Artists from around the world come to Medalta to further their skills.

South of Medalta is the National Porcelain site, where glazed ceramic insulators for the electrical distribution industry were manufactured. The concrete foundation, and a couple of brick accessory buildings are all that remain.

The oldest part of the Historic Clay District is the Medicine Hat Brick and Tile which started life as a soft mud brick yard in 1886 and only closed in 2010 following a devastating flood of the Ross Creek, a span of 124 years. Today, the Brick and Tile is part of Medalta operations and home to the ceramic artists, who live in the office converted to a residence.

To the north was I-XL’s Sewer Pipe manufacturing plant. Constructed in 1954, it operated until the advent of plastic pipe started a long decline in market demand, leading to closure in 1990. This property includes the spectacular clay cutbanks overlooking the river and Police Point Park.

Medicine Hat’s clay industries formed the original economic backbone of this city in the beginning of the 20th Century and now, over 130 years later, have taken on new purpose as the premier tourist attraction of the city. As Medalta’s Vision Statement says, “A World Class Cultural District with a Heart of Clay.”

Malcolm Sissons is a Member of the Heritage Resources Committee of the City of Medicine Hat.

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