Fred Stebler arrived in Riverside in 1899 and left his mark on the Southern California citrus industry with his invention of packing house equipment. Born in Iowa to Swiss parents he grew up in South Dakota, living for a time in a three sided sod house like many pioneer families. He went to work in Illinois as an apprentice machinist and brought a kind of tinkering genius to his work. His first project in Riverside, with partner Irving Fay, was an improved version of an orange brushing machine Fay had developed with an earlier associate. Stebler’s improved design sold, and when Fay’s health failed, Stebler started the California Iron Works with Austin Gamble. The partnership lasted until 1909, after which Stebler continued on his own until 1921.
Stebler started out by improving machinery that already existed and his first real success was a mechanical sizer. He bought the patent and redesigned it so successfully it became the industry standard. His business success came not only from the creation of new devices, but from selling useful equipment made by others. He also created utility items others hadn’t previously considered. Stebler’s innovations gradually led to standardization of the layout of packing lines at the packing houses, with Stebler’s own equipment dominating, of course.
He approached most of his problems the same way, by close observation. He visited area packing houses, observed their needs, and then developed suitable equipment. He would bicycle to most of the facilities, taking the train to packers in nearby cities and transporting his bicycle in the baggage car.
By the end of his career, Stebler held approximately 40 U.S. patents on fruit processing equipment including conveyors, washers, dryers, clamp trucks, elevators, dumpers, labelers, separators, and fruit distributors.
A running battle led to Stebler’s greatest success. The same year Stebler became a sole proprietor, George Parker bought the Riverside Foundry and Machine Works where he was employed as a machinist and renamed it the Parker Machine Works. The business, created by Robert Henderson, made fruit box nailing machinery and deep well pump heads. With some encouragement, Parker expanded beyond manufacturing the nailing apparatus and began to take on Stebler in the manufacture of packing and handling equipment. For more than 10 years the two men feuded until ruinous legal costs resulting from patent litigation and an economic slump forced a truce and the two consolidated their citrus processing machinery businesses.
Stebler’s refusal to separate the devices on which he held patents began to alienate citrus growers and the California Fruit Growers Exchange began to encourage an Orange County competitor to expand and make rival equipment as the Stebler-Parker patents ran out. Still others in the food packing industry formed a nationwide concern, the Food Machinery Corporation. Both Stebler and the growers approached Food Machinery and the resulted was the Stebler-Parker Company in Riverside, Roberts and Huntington in Orange County, and a brush manufacturer became a regional branch of Food Machinery, managed by Stebler. During Stebler’s reign, Food Machinery Corporation, Citrus Machinery Division became the undisputed and dominant giant of citrus machinery production.
When Parker died suddenly in 1935 and his wife died the following year, a third competitor, Hale Paxton, was able to acquire Parker’s business at a liquidation sale. Stebler retired in 1937. By 1938 all the parts of the division at Food Machinery were united under Paxton’s leadership; quite unexpectedly he died within six months of being named superintendent.
As was brewed in Europe in 1939, Food Machinery began to produce amphibious tracked landing vehicles in preparation for America’s involvement in World War II. The original, built for Florida’s everglades, was redesigned by Food Machinery for military applications including models used as open troop carriers and a second type with a gun turret. The ones built in Riverside were all of the second type and the Riverside plant turned out 12 a day. During the Korean War, Food Machinery was asked to recondition and modify some units and soon began build the vehicles again.
After his retirement, Stebler profited heavily from the dividends and capital increase from his Food Machinery stock but he continued to tinker, selling the company inventions from time to time, such as the drop-roll olive sizer he invented in 1941.
He died in 1957 at age 86. Individually and together the three men and their innovations had modernized the industry.
Five years after he arrived in Riverside, Stebler married Eva Woodman and built a home on Mulberry Street designed by G. Stanley Wilson. While the family lived there, the first of their five children were born. In 1911, Fred Stebler commissioned a Swiss Chalet bungalow for his family. The style featured rooflines that often curved up at the ends with overhanging eaves supported by heavy wooden brackets. Its design is similar to the Craftsman bungalow, and there are only a few such homes in Riverside. The house is also unusual because, for over 90 years, only members of the Stebler family lived there.