Even before the turn of the century, E Trist & Co., the well known 'saddlers etc' were begging to announce that they had the 'Largest Stock of Trotting, Racing and Polo Boots to select from in the Colony and every description of Trotting Boots are manufactured on the premises...' And now, eighty years afterwards, those at Trist & Small reckon they're the only saddlers in the country dealing in and manufacturing only trotting goods.
"Some of the boots, of course, can be used by other horses, but they're the exception - and then only by coincidence," one of the present principals in the company, Laurie Trist, explains. The other partner is Chris Owen, with Trist & Small since leaving school more than eleven years ago. There is not a Small in the place. There was once. But that was a long time ago, even before Laurie's dad Ernie can remember. And he's been taking notice of what went on in the firm since he was a youngster old enough to be taken into town by his mother and later to work there after school.
Ernie's grandfather, John Trist, started it all off. More than 100 years ago, 109 would be closer to the mark. "He was a tent and sailmaker by trade. I never knew him, never spoke to him...only ever say photos of him," the current senior Trist said when the Calendar visited the saddlery last week. That John Trist's business was eventually taken over by Ernie Trist's father John ('known as Bill') and uncle Ernest. Again they were into tents and sails as well as holding the 'largest stock of Trotting...' and so on. "They must have made good equipment. Only a year ago we had some harness in here to repair and it still had the 'E Trist' label on it. It must have been made last century.
Ernie Trist doesn't know when it was exactly that his father left the original family business and set up with a certain George Small. "It must have been round the turn of the century because they took a Gold Medal award at the 1906 NZ Exhibition," he explained. There's a faded, yet still impressive, framed certificate on the workshop wall to prove it. And an invoice sent out to a client in 1905 for work done on various pieces of leatherware. Working almost solely with leather has been the hallmark of the Trist & Small business almost from the beginning. Ernie Trist began a 5-year apprenticeship making racing and trotting equipment from leather in 1928. "And everything was done almost exactly the same way then as it is now. One of the few differences is that all the leather then was hand-stitched; today machines play a bigger part."
The firm had a name change for a couple years before Ernie Trist started work. For a while it as known as Trist, Smith and Jarden. Smith and Jarden were well-known names in trotting circles in those days. Robert Smith was an American who had a great influence on trotting here, being the man responsible for the importation of sires like Jack Potts to NZ. Jarden was a well-known trotting writer of the time as well as a handicapper and judge. But the partnership did not last all that long. Trist bought the others out after a couple of years and shanged the the name back to Trist & Small.
From the time the business was established until just after the war, it was located next door to Tattersalls Horse Bazaar, in Cashel Street in the heart of Christchurch. Regular sales took place there every Friday as well as the more spectacular events like the annual yearling sales. The bazaar was run by the Matson family, a name which has very strong links with the industry in NZ. Allan Matson was one of its leaders in the 1950s, president when the NZ Trotting Association and Conference combined. Trist & Small's had Tattersall's Hotel, itself gone now, on the other side. "We used to reckon all we had to do was knock a hole in the wall whenever we wanted a beer," Ernie Trist recalled with a smile. He also has a wealth of tales about the fun and games which often took place on sale day, the day when dozens of horses and gigs would be lined up after bringing prospective buyers and interested onlookers to the auction.
Horses weren't the only animals to be put under the hammer at the bazaar. Occasionally bulls took everyone's attention. "The bull sale at show time seemed to be of interest to the whole town. Crowds thronged to it." Perhaps it was excitement the people wanted , the minor chaos created when occasionally a recalcitrant bull would put his hoof down and refuse to go into the ring. Ernie Trist remembers one particularly wild specimen actually getting away from the bazaar and careering through the streets of downtown Christchurch before being caught. But all this was in pre-World War II days.
During the war Ernie Trist seved in the Pacific before coming home and being pressed into service under the 'manpower' regulations. Essential industries got the manpower they needed to meet wartime requirements, industries like mining and butter and cheese. Ernie Trist, leather worker, put in for the latter only to be told by the Labour Department that there were no vacancies there and he'd have to go into the coal mines. "There was no way I was going down into the mines and I told them so; I eventually ended up in building industry working for my brother until the restrictions were lifted."
Still, he used to work at the old firm on Saturday morning keeping his hand in. His father had operated the business throughout the war. And even then he was hard pressed at times to keep up with the orders. "I remember getting one letter while I was overseas which said he had 21 sets of hopples on order and six set of harness. The difficulty in those days was getting materials, especially English leather. We have always imported a certain percentage of leather from England, especially for overchecks, reins and tie downs. Trade and Industries have tried to convince us we don't need to but we have proved to them otherwise. When it comes to races, you have got to do everything you can to alleviate breakages which could have disastrous consequences."
When Ernie Trist started with the firm again it had orders for thirty sets of harness and a hundred sets of hopples. There was a waiting list of a year sometimes. Even now clients sometimes have to wait. It takes one man at least 45 hours to make a set of leather harness. "And even then you can never get a whole day devoted completely to the one job," Laurie Trist, 26, explains. It took one man the same amount of time years ago. The harness man worked on the 'black bench'. Chris Owens worked on that exclusively for three of four years when he first joined Trist & Small. He remembers it well. Remembers getting his hands pretty dirty. Ernie Trist, too, remembers what it was like in the early days. "We were the popular jokers in the dance hall. Funny how that stuff is hell of a hard to wipe off your hands and yet it got so easily onto the girls dresses.
The gear's the same now as it was fifty or sixty years ago. There haven't been many radical changes. Only hopple shorteners. And the price, of course. Ernie Trist recalled easily the times when a set of best leather race harness could be bought for £13/10/- or a couple of pounds cheaper for a lesser set. Hopples wer five quineas or £4/15/-, depending on the quality. That was round about the end of the war. Today leather race harness costs close enough to $700, hopples $250. "You could get a good class stock saddle for £13/10/-, a reasonable one for £8/7/6. Now they're hundreds of dollars, too." Trist & Small these days don't make or sell saddles but they did in the old days. And this highlights, perhaps, one way the trade has changed over the years.
Now, any one of the three men at Trist & Small can make a set of harness - or all three can work on the one set to get a rush order through. Back then, the saddler made all the straps and things. No saddles though. The saddlehand made those. The collar makers made the collars. It seems there must have been a bit of a class system in operation then. "The collar makers had the toughest time. He would freeze in winter, have sweat poring off him in summer. His was really hard yakka. I think there is only one alive in the country today, but I don't think he's working," Ernie said. "We on the racing side of things were regarded as 'refined' gentlemen of the trade."
Plastics have revolutionised the industrybut the Trists are convinced that nothing will ever replacereal leather for it's wearing qualities, among other things. Ernie Trist brings up about that recent repair job on harness that must have been well over eighty years old and still going strong. "Plastic is cheaper and it's easier to keep clean. But leather is the best." And while leather might be the best, the three tradesmen working away at their benches agree, too, that the quality of tools they have to work with has deteriorated over the years. Laurie Trist thinks he knows why. "In those old times, makers knew exactly what the tools were going to be used for. Saddlers were big business then. Now there's a small demand for specialist equipment so sometimes it is not as good."
The business is no longer near what used to be Tattersalls Bazaar. That was sold after the war and Trist & Small moved around the corner into Mancester Street and widened its scope to deal also in fancy leather goods, suitcases and the likes. Ernie's father retired from the business in 1956. Renie took over. Ten years later, another move, this time to their present home, upstairs premises in the industrial section of St Asaph Street on the outskirts of the city centre. With the move came a parting of the ways from the fancy goods side of the business. That remained with new owners in Mancester Street. The Trists wanted to concentrate solely on trotting goods. It was also Ernie Trist's intention to concentrate on manufacturing and selling wholesale. "There was such a phenomenal demand for out stuff then; there were no plastics to compete with. We wanted to get away from the mainstream retail trade, but before very long customers approached us directly. And we couldn't turn down old customers so we have remained retailers."
Chris joined the company straight from school in 1969 and five years ago bought into the business. Laurie started during school holidays when he was about 13 but went psychiatric nursing for two and a half years on leaving school. He then worked as a builder's labourer, getting his ticket later as a drainlayer before getting into the business, too, in 1976. "Too cold in winter" was his reason for getting out of the drains. Noe the senior Trist regards himself as "just the boy about the place. I'm convinced now that lives go in a complete circle." He doesn't have to get the lunches but he is the official tea-maker. "Mainly because he makes the best brew," the others agree. The others are three. Besides the two younger men there is Sadie Scott in the office. That's the total staff. At times there have been more. But for the next few months, things begin to slaken off a little and the present lot will be able to cope.
The company has a regular spot around the stables at Addington every racenight where they keep a range of their wares. The deal also in all facets of trotting goods and, for instance, are the only manufacturers of toe weights in Australasia. "We don't see as many races as we would like to, but we do have time for the odd bet. None of them owns a horse although Ernie's father owned a pretty useful trotter in Duke Bingen who raced uccessfully in the 1920s. The old chap was also a president at one time of the Canterbury OTB.
The workshop syndicate can't rate itself as one of the most successful around, but then it probably doesn't follow a system workers down in the Cashel Street establishment followed, especially on Cup Day. "For years, we would put out money on the horse whose owner bought new gear from us for the big race. It worked year after year. Indianapolis had new harness for his first two wins and again for his third. They probably didn't need that but they weren't going to take the risk," Ernest Trist, now 64, explained. "There were horses like Red Shadow, Lucky Jack...and more recently Lord Module." The system did come unstuck once though. Therewere four in the race with new gear. "And that confused us. We didn't know which way to go."
Credit: Graham Ingram writing in NZ Trotting Calendar 10Mar81