A Ceramic Industry is Born in Alberta

Description: In 1906 all the circumstances were right for the brith of a ceramic industry in a small, but booming Southern Alberta town.

The year was 1906. Alberta—one of Canada’s newest provinces—was barely a year old. Medicine Hat had just incorporated itself and was on the verge of a boom, perhaps rivaling Calgary, Edmonton or Lethbridge in the race to become Alberta’s main industrial center. The city seemed ideal for commerce. The clear South Saskatchewan river ensured a plentiful water supply, land was abundant—an industrial park had even been set aside—and the Canadian Pacific Railroad’s mainline provided direct access to both east and west markets. But best of all, the city had gas; more clean-burning natural gas than it knew what to do with. And on that asset, the city would build its future.

The next few years were indeed busy. At times the city seemed to be overrun with new faces, all exploring the possibilities of setting up a business in the area. The brick and tile industry saw unprecedented growth both in Medicine Hat itself and nearby Redcliff, just a few miles to the west. Cheap land, almost free natural gas, a wide variety and a plentiful supply of clays—not to mention the railway—were irresistible.

One now well-known person who came to the “Hat” in 1907 was Rudyard Kipling. He was not there as an investor, but to only visit and enjoy himself. He had in fact been to the town twice before, once in 1889 and then three years later in 1892. His 1907 visit, though, was timely as it came just when some of the citizens were thinking about changing the town’s name. Kipling undoubtedly affected the decision when he said “And don’t you think of changing the name of your town. It’s all your own and the only Hat of its kind on Earth.” And it was at this time, too, that he commented on the town having “all hell for a basement,” a reference to the extensive gas fields below the town.

One of the factories choosing Medicine Hat over Redcliff was the Alberta Clay Products Company. From its establishment in 1909, it went on to become a familiar landmark of the city, offering steady employment to hundreds of people over the years. While this company is not really part of the pottery industry that we are examining, it is worthy of note from several standpoints.

First of all, from a strong start declining through the war years—largely due to manpower shortages—it went on to flourish under new management. Harry C. Yuill, who had settled in Medicine Hat in 1884 as a carpenter, acquired controlling interest and provided the capital to refurbish the factory which had been neglected during the war. From this start, Yuill and/or his family went on to play an important part in the pottery industry of the area, eventually building the Medicine Hat Potteries and taking over an abandoned Redcliff plant. But more about those stories later.

Secondly, the Alberta Clay Products may be of interest to some collectors as they did make a few decorative pieces over the years. Perhaps they were never main production lines, but they have certainly become quite collectible. One of these was a figurine of a frizzy-haired dog sitting on a rectangular base. It stood about eight inches high, and I believe it was sold in pairs to sit at either side of the fireplace. One of these dogs sold for close to $1000.00 at a recent antique show, so if you have one handle it with tender loving care.2

The other item, which came in several sizes, was a frog-shaped figurine probably made to attractively decorate one’s garden. All were made of the relatively coarse sewer-pipe clay and were either left the natural colour of the clay or finished using a brown glaze. The frogs were simply marked with the initials of the company, A.C.P., cut into the bottom, while the dog was stamped on the base with the name “Medicine Hat.”

But the clay products companies were not the only industries to settle in Medicine Hat to take advantage of the cheap gas. Several greenhouses sprang up, a planning mill, a brewing company and several flour mills. One of these, the Ogilvie Flour Mills Company Limited, was to have a long association with the Medalta Potteries. Over a fourteen-year period, starting in 1926, Medalta produced a variety of products—such as mixing bowls, pitchers, teapots, measuring cups and ashtrays—that were distributed throughout western Canada by merchants carrying Ogilvie’s products. Later, when we examine Medalta Potteries Limited, we will take a closer look at that particular venture.

We could have followed the history of each factory from start to finish; but, instead, we will take a chronological look at the industry, factory by factory. We will look at when the companies were formed, when they closed, the main players, the main changes occurring over the years and the wide variety of products made by each.

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