Toolin’ Around Town: The long legacy of Petaluma’s Van Bebber Bros.
The founders and successive generations of family members who’ve led to the prosperity of 117-year-old steel supply firm Van Bebber Bros., Inc. - Petaluma’s oldest family-owned business - could accurately be referred to as “men of steel.” That said, the tensile strength behind Petaluma’s longest-serving family-owned business lies not in the products it manufactures but in the Van Bebber family’s valued commitment to service.
The truest test of mettle and the secret of longevity for the firm comes from its leadership, beginning with brothers George W. and Fred E. Van Bebber, who established the business - blacksmith, buggy and wagon repair, and ironwork – in 1901. That leadership has been carried on for the next four generations.
“One of the biggest reasons behind our survival has been the willingness of each generation to stay in business and to perform quality work,” said Royce L. Van Bebber, 87, grandson of George W. and grandfather of current company president Royce R. Van Bebber.
“I started out sweeping floors and doing wheelbarrow work when I was eight years old. By the time I was ten, I was running a lathe,” said Royce. “As I got older I worked after school and throughout summer vacation. I never had any doubt that I wanted to stay in the business.”
Along with his father, Royce was active in the Boy Scouts of America, spending summers at Camp Noyo, a Boy Scout retreat in Mendocino County that was accessible by the Skunk Train. He became an Eagle Scout, one of his proudest achievements, after earning his merit badge in swimming at Boyes Hot Springs resort when no pool was available in Petaluma.
After graduating from Petaluma High in 1949, he was hired full-time. The following year he and his wife of 68 years, Carolee Kroft, were married. They raised four children Cindy, Linda, Rick and Cheri, in the home Royce and his father built in 1953. Soon after joining the family business, after his uncle, Alvin Van Bebber, was killed by a hit-and-run driver, Royce was thrust into a position of high responsibility - managing the shop and supervising the machine and fabrication operations.
Sticking to a rigid business plan, Royce had every day planned out. He had to be prepared in case any of the local feed mills and businesses had breakdowns. The widespread growth that took over allowed Van Bebber to expand its buildings, add more sophisticated machinery, and undertake much larger projects.
The business, originally located at 215 East Washington St., relocated several times. The firm moved to 246 Main St. (now Petaluma Boulevard North) in 1918, one year before George W. bought out his brother’s business interest. In the mid-1920s George’s son Alvin, a Stanford University graduate, joined the firm, soon followed by his younger brother George E. “Ellie” Van Bebber.
During the Depression, the company survived by doing repair work for local farmers, feed mills and rock crushers, before expanding into stainless steel and accepting many large fabrication jobs. In the war years, Ellie Van Bebber taught arc welding to prospective shipyard workers while Van Bebber Bros. worked on government contracts.
With a nod to future expansion, a four-acre parcel at 729 Third St. (Petaluma Boulevard South) was purchased, but due to the company’s conservative philosophy, the move didn’t occur until 1956. The back of the Third Street property, along the waterfront, went to good use when Ellie Van Bebber donated it, in 1948, to the newly formed Petaluma Yacht Club, to build a clubhouse, a boat launching ramp and a dock. Waterskiing was just becoming popular and many Petalumans were eager to participate in the emerging aquatic sport.
As avid water skiers and fishermen, Royce and family maintain a Lake County resort house and live part of the year at Northstar, Lake Tahoe, where he snow-skied until four years ago. A longtime member of Petaluma Golf and Country Club, Carolee Van Bebber was the Women’s Division Club champion in 1987.
Rick Van Bebber joined the firm in 1973 after graduating PHS, becoming the fourth-generation family member to become president. He oversaw daily operations and continued growth along with additional machinery. Following his death in 2015, Rick’s son, Royce R. took charge, extending the family operation to five generations.
Longtime residents will remember local plumbing contractor Park Van Bebber, brother of George and Fred. His son, Norman Van Bebber, following in the path of his uncle George, who served 12 years on the Petaluma City Council, was a member of the City Council from 1957 until he was elected mayor in 1963.
Although he no longer skis, Royce is content with being the patriarch of one of Petaluma’s most admired families, enjoying his nine grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
With a gentle smile, he said, “I’m happy that I’ve done everything I’ve ever wanted to do.”
(Harlan Osborne’s ‘Toolin’ Around Town’ runs every other week. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org)