Flashback: Famed Nut Tree could live again

The top panel of the Nut Tree sign is lowered to the ground after it was removed by crane on Wednesday, March 18, 2015, in Vacaville, Calif. A deal was reached between the city and the developer early Wednesday to preserve two of the panels from the roadside landmark.
The top panel of the Nut Tree sign is lowered to the ground after it was removed by crane on Wednesday, March 18, 2015, in Vacaville, Calif. A deal was reached between the city and the developer early Wednesday to preserve two of the panels from the roadside landmark. AP

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Sacramento Bee on Oct. 6, 2001. The iconic Nut Tree sign came down on Wednesday.

Though its namesake closed long ago, the Nut Tree Parkway exit still lures travelers from their business on Interstate 80. But all that remains to be seen of the roadside extravaganza is, well, its shell.

For 75 years, the Nut Tree was a favorite stopping-off point between Sacramento and San Francisco, somewhere travelers could refuel and unwind.

Adults flocked to the Nut Tree restaurant, dragging their children from gargantuan rocking horses, fun house mirrors and a miniature train that made the complex a semi-amusement park. Shops sold peanut brittle, stuffed animals, exotic plants and cookbooks. Those with a taste for black licorice may remember they used to sell the good stuff, licorice so solid and chewy it was called a tar bar.

That ended in 1996, when the Nut Tree closed its doors, undermined by competition from fast-food joints and outlet stores.

But it looks like a bit of the Nut Tree could live on under a new proposal by the San Francisco-based Eden Development Group. In March, the group entered into a memorandum of understanding with the city of Vacaville to redevelop 76 acres of the vacant landmark.

Not everything would be saved under the proposal. Except for the historic Harbison House, which would remain on the property, the remaining Nut Tree buildings would come down to make room for a 225,000-square-foot retail center, two hotels (one a full-service resort), office buildings, 500 apartments and two championship golf courses. The project is undergoing an environmental review, scheduled to be finished in the spring, at which point the city and the developer will decide whether to enter into an official agreement.

"What we're looking for is an upper-class niche in the market, " said Ted Eden, an architect and principal with the Eden Development Group.

Given the current economic uncertainty, Eden's ambitious proposal could end up simply a well-planned dream. Unemployment has been rising in the wake of the dot-com collapse, and many consumers are overextended and worried about what the immediate future holds.

Moreover, the I-80 corridor has changed radically since the Nut Tree's heyday. A reinvented Nut Tree would hardly be the isolated oasis it was in the past, and the competition that bedeviled it in its last years only has grown.

If the project ultimately does go forward, the wholesome, rural Nut Tree image would survive, Eden said, in two home-style restaurants, a small farmers market and a number of resurrected elements from the old complex, including the Nut Tree signs hanging from the main building.

The Nut Tree train would roll again, recalling a time when children raced to be first aboard. But the group envisions the train chugging through a Tivoli Gardens-style park.

The Nut Tree Post Office, too, would be revived. The facility nearly closed this year, having foundered in its new location across the highway. To preserve the Nut Tree postmark, Eden Development has agreed to cover the office's approximately $3,000 in monthly losses until it can be reopened on Nut Tree property.

"People used to buy stuff like nuts and candy and then send it home for Christmas with the Nut Tree postmark, " Eden said.

The idea was sweet and worth saving, he said.

Along with the train and postmark, the Eden Group would win the copyright to the Nut Tree logo, the essence of what Eden describes as "70 years of branding."

"Everyone seems to know where the Nut Tree is, " he said. "A huge number of people went to that restaurant, to that place."

Before the city entered into the memorandum of understanding, several developers had tried to buy the Nut Tree property. But their proposals failed to live up to the city's demand that the Nut Tree legacy be preserved.

If the deal goes through, Vacaville has agreed to sell 76 acres of core Nut Tree property to the Eden Group for $7.5 million - the same price the city paid when it bought the land from the original owners, the Power family, in fall 2000; it also agreed to discount any environmental impact fees required in the future. Additionally, adjoining property owned by the city would be taken off the market, reserved for future Eden Group development. And the city would pay $16 million to widen the Nut Tree Parkway exit.

"We wanted to see a certain kind of development, " said Assistant City Manager David Van Kirk. "(Something) like what the Nut Tree was but bringing it into the 21st century."

The Nut Tree opened in 1921 as a simple fruit stand set up beneath a black walnut tree. When it closed in 1996, it was a spacious complex with specialty stores and seasonal outdoor attractions, including a pumpkin patch and scarecrow contest.

"The Nut Tree was a major part of our lives for a long time, " said 49-year-old Linda Cornforth of Elk Grove. "We would stop there every time we went to the airport, when we went to the city, when we went anyplace."

Cornforth remembers visiting the Nut Tree as a child with her mother, brother and sister. Her mother would buy her a little something, she said, like a print of some local artist's work. "Mother would put in change, and we'd go home with our rolled-up posters."

Until it closed, she took her two daughters to the Nut Tree on a semi-regular basis. Her elder daughter still has a Nut Tree hat hanging on her wall.

In its current state, she said, the Nut Tree is a bit depressing, but she's consoled by the idea that something of the old place might survive.

"We're looking forward to what develops, " she said.