Jul 20, 2012

The Concrete Whale Tale

Located in Central Park in Medicine Hat, Alberta this one-of-a-kind piece of playground equipment seems lost in a foggy history.  Cast in concrete and showing decades of wear and tear, the whale slide recently attracted some attention in the Medicine Hat News after the Kiwanis Club had trouble verifying the whale's origins. 

Stamped on the stairs is the Blue IMP logo (a playground brand produced here in the Hat) that helped to narrow the construction date of the whale to sometime after 1950 when the brand was trademarked. However, the company admitted that despite selling the stairs, the whale was not their creation and that it seemed like a one-off.

What really made this story interesting to me was that my Dad had taken it upon himself to ask around about the whale after reading the story in the paper.  My grandparents used to live just a couple blocks from Central Park and so my Dad remembers playing here when he was a kid in the late 1950s.  My sister and I have memories playing here too in the 1990s when we'd visit our grandparents house. To digress, what I remember most about the whale is that the inside always smelled like pee.

As it turns out, my uncle ended up remembering more about the whale's history than anyone else.  My Dad contacted the newspaper to share the update: "The story he [my uncle] heard was that a European artisan-type volunteered to build the forms to pour the cement and that a special concrete was used."  It was believed that the man was possibly a displaced person who came from Germany after WWII.

This is me speculating now, but given Medicine Hat's history in the clay district, and the fact that Medalta Potteries employed German POWs, there may be some connection there as to who this person was or a clue to where this man acquired the skills to construct the forms that were used to cast this. Maybe not.

My Dad also recalls that they moved into the house near Central Park in 1954 and that the whale wasn't there when they moved.  The overlapping stories of my relatives (as corroborated by my Dad) suggest then that the whale was built between 1957-1958. While the stories give the whale in Central Park a bit more context, they also raise more questions about who this man might have been and whether or not that chapter will remain lost in this small piece of local history.    

*UPDATE 2015 - After several years of speculation, I came across the origin of the "Moby Dick" whale slide in Central Park at a historic resources meeting. Sadly, the truth isn't quite as captivating as the other stories I heard along the way. 

It was designed by Jack Russell (1921-1987), a Lethbridge born architect who moved to Medicine Hat in 1951. Construction on the playground at Central Park began in 1958 and all of the equipment was installed by June 1960. It was funded by the Kiwanis Club who spent $15,000 on improvements for the park. Jack Russell had involvement in numerous architectural projects around Southern Alberta, including the Medicine Hat Arena. 

1 comment :

Susan Barth said...

My grandparents lived close to Central Park as well and we played on the whale for hours as children. I totally remember how the inside smelled like pee too!