Look What Comes Out Of HE HAT!
Even apart from its funny name, Medicine Hat, Alta., is unique. With a volatile climate that nourishes rattlesnakes and roses, it’s an industrial cowtown in a prairie oasis that owes its prosperity to a bottomless pool of natural gas under its streets
"y ROBERT COLLINS
PHOTOS BY MIKE KESTERTON
FOR TWO hundred miles southeast, of Calgary the highway leads you past lonesome grain elevators, sun-bleached Alberta villages and herds of white-faced cattle on sprawling ranchland. Then, just when you feel yau couldn’t face another Hereford, you dip abruptly into a hidden oval valley, cradling the South Saskatchewan River and a clean green city o:’ seventeen and a half thousand people.
It’s a strange dramatic site for a prairie city but then nothing’s too surprising for Medicine Hat, au industrial cowtown with a freak climate, a fortune in natural gas under its streets and a name like nothing else on earth.
Oil and gas strikes are relatively new and exciting to other prairie communities. But for seventy years Medicine Hat has calmly squatted on one of the biggest, purest natural gas fields in Canada. You can drill a twelve-hundred-foot hole anywhere in or around the Hat and strike gas, just as a gang oí CPR well-drillers did accidentally in 1883. The gas is so odorless the city has to give it a smell so that any leaks can be detected.
Industry is uncommon in the average prairie town but in the Hat seventeen industries, drawn
by low-priced fuel, produce fifty million dollars’ worth of goods a year. This has led Bob Buss, manager of radio station CHAT and a persistent man with a slogan, to call the city the “Pittsburgh of the Prairies.” Fifty freight cars leave Medicine Hat every working day carrying such incongruous products as sewer tile and potted plants, chrysanthemums and crockery, linseed oil and sheep, celery and bricks, roses and glassware, irrigation machinery and cabbage, cattle and cauliflower, flue linings and breakfast food.
Yet Medicine Hat still looks like, acts like and is a cowtown. The gas-burning industries leave no grimy pall of smoke and right next door to the factories lie four thousand farms and ranches. On Saturday nights the beer parlors and five pool halls are full of sunburned men in blue jeans, high-heeled boots and cowboy hats. Most Medicine Hatters would rather sit back and spin a ranching yarn than worry about production statistics.
The climate supplies yet another paradox. The Hat has one hundred and thirty frost-free days a year, two weeks more than any other prairie centre. Its mean summer temperature is sixty-two; its winter temperature a mild twenty-five above. With this relatively freakish weather the district attracts nearly everything from roses to rattlesnakes.
When Harry Ainsworth, Department of Transport radio officer and meteorologist, came to the Hat five years ago, he left Saskatoon in a blizzard,
passed through Moose Jaw at thirty-three below zero and found Medicine Hatters walking around without overcoats. As the crow flies, the Hat is less than fifty miles west of the Saskatchewan border. Ainsworth credits the balmy weather to the city’s low altitude—2,181 feet as compared to Lethbridge’s 2,983 and Calgary’s 3,440 combined with warm chinooks and other air currents coming t hrough t he Crowsnest Pass.
But Medicine Hat is proudest of its name. Along with Moose Jaw and Walla-Walla, Washington, it rates high among the most arresting place names on the continent. Rival Chambers of Commerce would gladly swap a dozen historic sites for it.
“Tourists driving through here nearly always stop, if only to ask about the name,” says R. H. Lacey, secretary of the Chamber of Commerce in the Hat.
Every year scores of collectors around the world write the post office for the unique postmark. A few years ago a handful of citizens suggested changing the name to something more dignified —Gainsborough, for example, was one proposal — but the majority of t he citizens squelched the idea. After all, t he world has its share of Londons and Romes but there’s only one Medicine Hat.
Last year an American who’d entered a placenames contest wrote post master Samuel Goldie for the origin of Medicine Hat. Local historians can’t agree on the exact derivation but Goldie, a goodhumored Scot, sent along Continued on page 66
Look What Comes Out Of The Hat !
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 19
the two favorite legends from the half-dozen that go around.
One tale says the Crees and Blackfeet were battling on the shores of the South Saskatchewan in 1870 when the Blaekfoot medicine man lost his hat —a skull-cap of dogskin hung with herbs, ermine, bear teeth and eagle
feathers. This was such a bad omen that the Blackfeet fled, leaving the field to the Crees. “The Place of the Medicine Hat” was later abbreviated to its present form.
Another yarn claims that a young Cree warrior was watering his horse at the river one day when a sea serpent popped up and offered him an allpowerful medicine hat if the young man would sacrifice his new bride. The warrior consulted his wife who, being a broad-minded girl, agreed. He tossed her in the river, collected the medicine hat and became a great chief.
“This second legend,” Goldie wrote the American contestant, “may not be true but it goes to show that around here a man will trade his wife for a hat any day.”
Although the city is at least seven hundred miles from the nearest ocean, with nothing saltier at hand than corned beef, some Medicine Hatters say the serpent still shows his face periodically. They’ve named him Ogopogo (they say he’s older than the fabled monster of the Okanagan valley who bears the same name) and two years ago the Chamber of Commerce
offered one hundred dollars for a genuine sea-monster egg. There were no takers. The Hat’s name, its weather and its serpent are good for publicity but without its vast mine of natural gas it would be just another ranch town. As it is, there are four flour mills, a linseed-oil plant, ceramic plants which make bricks, pottery and tile from local clay, and numerous smaller industries. John Furch, a stocky, soft-spoken Czech, brought his glass-ornaments industry to Medicine Hat from Stratford, Ont., three years ago. “In Stratford,” says Furch, “I had to pay a dollar or more for one thousand cubic feet of gas and the pressure was not always good. Here I pay maybe ten cents a thousand and always the pressure is high.” Industrial gas rates for largescale consumers go as low as four and a half cents per thousand cubic feet because the Hat’s supply of gas is apparently inexhaustible. Drillers have never struck a dry hole. The city owns forty - two producing wells — including one that’s been spouting gas since 1905 -—and expects to have forty-six this fall. The wells, housed in small windowless brick buildings, average twelve hundred feet deep and produce about five million cubic feet of gas every twenty-four hours, at five hundred and fifty pounds per square inch. The gas is ninety-eight percent methane, providing exceptional heat and power, and so pure that the city adds a ready-made commercial odorant so that leaks can be detected. The finished product, says Robert Beitz, gas department superintendent, smells “something like a skunk.” Christmas Flower Rush Twenty years ago Medicine Hat had two hundred and sixty-five gas street lamps which burned day and night. It was cheaper to leave them on than to hire a man to extinguish them every morning. The last gas light was replaced by brighter steam-generated electricity ten years ago but, since the steam is made with gas, light is still cheap. Even now, some lamps burn day and night at the Hat. Every householder’s front-porch light is on a separate circuit with current donated by the city. Medicine Hat owns all its water, gas and electrical utilities and power is so cheap it can afford this minor extravagance. Practically all of the fifty-three hundred Medicine Hat homes use gas heat. A family can heat a five-room house for fifty dollars a year. Cheap heat also partially accounts for Medicine Hat’s twenty-one acres of greenhouses, one of them the second largest in Canada (the largest is at Brampton, Ont.). Six hundred thousand dollars’ worth of flowers, mostly roses and chrysanthemums, are shipped as far as Fort William and Vancouver each year. Every autumn, prairie florists flock into Medicine Hat to place Christmas orders. The Hat’s sunshine helped lure the greenhouses too. Department of Transport statistics show that Medicine Hat, with an average 2,274 hours of sunshine a year, is second only to Lethbridge as the sunniest spot in the west. Last July, for example, the Hat had three hundred and ninety-five hours of sunlight, an average of twelve hours every day. The sun, the comparatively long growing season and ample South Saskatchewan water have made this a lush city for professional and amateur gardeners. Two of the downtown banks raise window boxes of petunias. Most homes have a back-yard garden and it’s said a fifty-foot lot will provide a
year’s supply of fruit and vegetables for a family of four.
Commercial market gardeners grow raspberries, strawberries, grapes, plums, apples and cantaloupe—unusual crops for the prairies. They’ve tried tobacco and cotton and although both crops grew the conditions weren’t good enough to make them commercially feasible.
The weather even agrees with rattlesnakes. A smaller but equally venomous relative of the American diamondback dens around the sunny river banks. Last August at nearby Grassy Lake, four boys killed seventeen rattlesnakes, some of them three to four feet long. A few months ago a rattler invaded the grounds of the nurses’ residence at the Medicine Hat General Hospital.
Snakebite is rare and most Medicine Hatters leave the snakes alone, too. An exception is Mrs. Madge Ratcliffe, a soft-spoken grey-haired widow who until recently hunted rattlers and sold them alive to side-shows and circuses. She also makes snakeskin belts and wallets. Once she decorated her hat with rattles; another time she took a can of snakes to radio station CHAT and persuaded them to rattle for a coast-to-coast broadcast.
Rattlesnakes are edible and Mrs. Ratcliffe says the meat resembles canned salmon. But neither she nor anyone else in the city is that hard up for a meal. Medicine Hat is very much a cattle town, on and off the dinner plate.
Every year there’s a stampede, second only to Calgary’s in size and calibre. Black’s Hardware, run by seventy-three-year-old Robert Black, sells forty or fifty saddles a year and the window of Freedman’s Hide and Fur Co. features shiny spurs and businesslike lariats. All the ranchers wear cowboy hats and many local businessmen do, too. Jack Allen, who runs a small airline, often goes up for a flip wearing his stetson, jeans and cowboy boots. The boots and hats aren’t merely for show; often the businessmen are retired or part-time ranchers. Even the city’s leading industrialist, Joseph H. Yuill, who controls a linseed-oil plant, pottery, clay-products factory, restaurant, the only radio station and several smaller enterprises, keeps a ranch and talks as fluently of cows as of kilns.
Ranches around the Hat average from four thousand to twenty thousand acres but a few bigger spreads still exist. Three years ago, for instance, Mack Higdon, a big amiable man in his late seventies, sold a hundred - and - eighty - five-thousandacre ranch for a reported half million dollars.
Genuine old-time cattlemen are still around too, although their ranks are thinning. This summer the Hat held a unique “cowboy’s farewell” for one of them, the late Joseph B. (Barney) Simpson. Barney, a wiry, pint-sized ranchman, owned a twenty-thousandacre spread at Wild Horse, near the American border. At seventy-nine he still drove to town regularly for an evening with his cronies. When he died last July, twenty friends on horseback and in full cowboy regalia escorted the bier from church to cemetery, led by Barney’s horse with empty saddle and boots reversed in the stirrups.
Simpson was one of the last colorful pioneers but modern Medicine Hatters haven’t lost the flair for stunts that might startle more conventional centres. In 1951 they perched “Canada’s first flagpole sitter” on a high pole to publicize the stampede. This summer James E. Caldwell was conducting flying tests in a strange machine called an ornithopter. If Caldwell perfects his contraption, a small
engine will lift it from the ground, then two sets of flapping wings will drive it along like a bird, without engine thrust.
Among Canada’s several demonstrative mayors, Medicine Hat’s Harry Veiner puts up a good show. Veiner, a forty-nine-year-old rancher and merchant, specializes in races. He has defeated most prairie mayors at foot races, tied a Lethbridge man in a pancake-eating contest and beaten a horse in a twenty-five-yard dash. Once in a cattle deal, Veiner raced the dealer for an extra heifer and won. Last
March he raced mayor Jim Creighton of Brandon on ice, wearing spiked boots. Veiner won when Creighton fell, injuring a shoulder.
Medicine Hatters have had a taste for shenanigans since the early days. Their town sprang up in 1883 when the railway arrived. That was the year a CPR gang, drilling for water, ignited a wet-gas pocket and burned their derrick to the ground. The section house used gas heat for a while but nobody thought of exploiting the discovery further.
In the same decade the first bank
opened. A cowhand named Bill Culley opened an account and a few days later strolled in and announced, “I want some money.” The teller, fresh from the east and wary of western badmen, took one look at the six-shooter dangling in Culley’s holster and called the police. The lawmen tiptoed in with drawn revolvers only to find the cowboy lounging peaceably against the wicket, chewing tobacco and wondering what in tarnation they’d done with his money.
Medicine Hat was proud of its growing season even in the Eighties. An
apple tree on CPU property bore fruit one year but Medicine Hatters stole apple after apple. Divisional superintendent John Niblock jealously built a wire cage around two other trees, then went to Moose Jaw to meet CPR President Sir William Van Horne who was touring the line.
“We grow apples in Medicine Hat,” said Niblock smugly.
“I don’t believe it,” said Sir William.
“I’ll show you when we get there,” promised Niblock.
Sir William promptly wired the Hat stationmaster to pick the fruit. When they reached town the enraged Niblock immediately offered a five-hundreddollar reward for the thief but he withdrew the offer when Van Horne invited him to his private car for a fresh apple.
Sir William inadvertently launched the Hat’s industry when in 1891 he loaned the city a drilling outfit to search for coal. Later excellent seams of lignite were found nearby but this time the drill struck only wet gas at six hundred feet. It wasn’t practical for heating because it froze in the pipes in winter. Experts said dry gas might lie deeper and the city continued to investigate.
By 1904 the city had sunk a drill to one thousand feet, exhausting both its money and patience. But driller J. A. Grant, a part-time sheep rancher, was convinced that another hundred feet would produce dry gas. Mayor Thomas Hutchinson backed bim and the poverty-stricken council reluctantly agreed. At one thousand and ten feet dry pure gas gushed up at five hundred and fifty pounds to the square inch. Medicine Hat switched from bankruptcy to boom overnight.
Later Rudyard Kipling visited the Hat and called it the “city that was born lucky and has all hell for a basement.” Medicine Hat has diligently turned this into the most durable cliche in the west. Publicity brochures invariably lead off with Kipling’s remark. Grateful Medicine Hat “blew” a gas well for Kipling, igniting a controlled flow of gas, then turning it on full blast and letting flame leap eighty feet in the air. This spectacular show used to be standard fare for visiting firemen until a provincial conservation board ruled that it wasted too much gas. The wells are still blown once a year to clean them out but they aren’t lighted.
After 1904 the gas city flourished but the surrounding farm country didn’t fare as well. The Hat district lies in a triangular drought-ridden area. The city itself lies between steep banks on the South Saskatchewan River bottom. Market gardeners can therefore irrigate handily but it is too expensive for farmers, high on the surrounding plateau, to draw water up to their farms.
So, in the early days, many settlers ! abandoned their farms, like the one j who scrawled on his empty shack:
Seven miles to water
Fifteen miles to wood.
You can have my desert homestead
I'm leaving it for good.
The periodic droughts led to the city’s encounter in 1921 with Charles M. Hatfield, a celebrated rainmaker. Hatfield, a jovial two - hundred - and - sixty -pounder, was hired during a dry spell and feted at a sumptuous banquet in the Corona Hotel. Then he unpacked two wagon loads of equipment north of town and proceeded to coax rain from the heavens with trays of chemical fumes. The rain came in torrents and Hatfield began to receive telegrams from outlying centres saying. “Enough rain, stop for three days and take holiday.”
But the hot dry winds soon returned.
Hatfield’s excuse was that the clouds were traveling too high for his fumes. He solemnly accepted fifty-five hundred dollars for the four and onequarter inches of water that had fallen earlier, packed his wagons and quietly left town.
Lately the Hat has taken a more scientific approach to water. Two irrigation schemes are nearing the western outskirts of the city and will serve one hundred and fifty thousand acres in the Hat’s trading district. Water will flow by gravity through irrigation ditches from the Bow River development, northwest near Calgary, and the St. Mary River dam, southwest near Lethbridge. The Bow flows into the South Saskatchewan but the latter isn’t directly involved in the irrigation plans. From the main ditches, farmers will draw water to their land with lateral gravity ditches and, sometimes, pipes with sprinkler systems. Farther west, irrigated land is used for special crops like sugar beets but imme-
dlately around Medicine Hat the farmers will utilize the water mainly to grow feed crops which, in turn, will fatten sheep and cattle.
Still, the Hat hasn’t abandoned rainmakers. In 1951 Donald Johnstone was called in from Regina to throw his magnetic “universcope” in reverse to guarantee fair weather for the stampede. It was good fun and, incidentally, the weather stayed dry.
Probably Medicine Hat will always dabble in stunts, rainmakers, horseplay and tall tales. It doesn’t pretend to be a high-pressure industrial centre. It’s still the sort of city where, most mornings around ten, Horace Mann, a local bank manager, Bill Hogle, editor of the daily News, C. R. Taylor, who manages a flour mill, and a handful of other businessmen or ranchers gather in the exclusive men’s Cypress Club for coffee and gossip. If there’s a stranger around somebody will probably remind him what Kipling said about Medicine Hat. Then ex-rancher Mack Higdon with his South Carolina drawl, may tell his favorite yarn—and the Hat’s favorite yarn —about the two local sheep ranchers who, years ago. drove out during a blizzard to check on their herd.
The sheep were fine but the herder was frozen stiff in a sitting position beside the embers of his campfire. The ranchers lifted the corpse into their wagon, drove back to the Hat and stopped for a drink. They took the erstwhile sheepherder in the bar with them, propped his body in a chair, ordered three drinks, tossed off the extra one when the bartender wasn’t looking and called for another round.
“Who’s paying?” asked the bartender.
The ranchers pointed to the corpse.
“Then let’s see your money, stranger,” said the bartender, thumping the motionless figure on the shoulder. The body promptly tumbled to the floor. The ranchers felt its pulse and said reproachfully, “Now lookit what you done. You killed him!”
“Well, maybe so.” countered the barkeep quickly. “But didn’t you see the sonofabitch reach for his knife?” ★