For decades, the iconic 72-foot sign featuring a green tree emblazoned with the words “NUT TREE” in triplicate served as a reliable beacon for Interstate 80 drivers traveling between Sacramento and the Bay Area.
That beacon is gone.
The last remaining structure from the original Nut Tree road stop was dismantled Wednesday to make way for an outlet store, the sort of retail attraction that now draws passing motorists into Vacaville. One of the three panels will be on display at the Vacaville Museum, one will go to the Vacaville airport and another will be included in the new development at the site, per an agreement signed in 2003.
The sign was originally scheduled to be demolished, but through the efforts of Solano County Supervisor John Vasquez and a number of community members, it was saved from the jackhammers.
“It started Tuesday afternoon when I happened to be driving by and I saw the construction equipment,” Vasquez said. “So I started to make some calls to some of the city leaders and elected officials. ... Over the course of (Wednesday), it went from saving one panel to saving two to saving all three.”
Vasquez grew up across from the Nut Tree and saw the sign go up over 50 years ago.
“Now I’ve watched it go down,” he said. “When something is lost – that’s when you mourn it the most.”
While taking down the sign had been in the works for years, residents were still surprised by the piecemeal removal Wednesday.
Shawn Lum, executive director of the Vacaville Museum, said she first found out the sign was coming down when a crane showed up Tuesday. But each piece of the structure weighs thousands of pounds, she said, so they needed a bigger crane and had to come back the next day.
She said many community members reminisced about Nut Tree’s heyday on social media Wednesday once the sign was gone.
“The sign was such a visible reminder of something that the community had really cared about,” she said. “Because Nut Tree closed so long ago, a lot of (residents) were longing for something that has gone.”
Made out of crushed green glass, obsidian and marble embedded in concrete, the sign was installed in 1964 to alert passing drivers to the renowned Nut Tree tourist stop. It was designed by Don Birrell, who controlled the branding of the Nut Tree for over 30 years.
“The sign has marked the location of that destination in an iconic way,” Lum said. “It was a monument to the destination.”
The Nut Tree first opened as a roadside fruit stand in 1921 in the shade of a big black walnut tree. Over the next 74 years, the complex grew to include a restaurant, candy kitchen, toy and flower shops, an airport and a train to take people around the area before it shut down in 1996.
“In its beginning, people knew where the Nut Tree was, but they didn’t know where Vacaville was,” said Jerry Bowen of the Vacaville Heritage Council. “(The sign) is the last remnant of the nut tree still standing. (The Nut Tree) has become nothing more than another shopping mall.”
The Nut Tree has been under development since 2003. Nut Tree Holdings LLC has built residential, retail and office space as well as an amusement park and event center. The newest addition, which required the removal of the sign, is a Saks Fifth Avenue Off Fifth.
“We had left the sign standing as long as possible, but now our final retail building for Saks Fifth Avenue Off Fifth necessitates its removal,” Ricardo Capretta, managing member of Nut Tree Holdings, said in an email.
The remaining panel from the sign will be incorporated into one of the development’s entrances.
“Reuse of historic Nut Tree elements has been a main focus for NTH,” Capretta said.
The Vacaville Museum has more than 7,000 artifacts from the Nut Tree, but Lum has a more personal connection – she worked at the Nut Tree in human resources for 11 years. She handed out the final paychecks on the day it closed.
“Most of the people who worked there, there was a sense of pride of being associated with such a long legacy,” she said. “That was really a hard time for the community. Quite a few people were attached to it in some way.”
Bowen said people used to fly into the airport just to go to the Nut Tree.
“They used to have a marshmallow concoction with pineapple and it was absolutely delicious. It was quite a place,” he said.
Vasquez said he wished the structure could have been left in place, but he’s happy he helped keep it from demolition.
“It really was a work of art, and now it gets to be saved,” he said.
Call The Bee’s Ellen Garrison at (916) 321-1006