A Nut Tree grew in CowTown

Nostalgia, places remembered, and balancing the past, present and future.

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were”

Marcel Proust

I admit, with “Shelter in Place” extending now into its 6th month, it’s easy to get lost in reflection.  I am a firm believer that learning and preserving our history, examining it, is invaluable to growth – but it must be balanced with making the most of “Now”, and anticipating a hopeful tomorrow. Because one of my home projects is family history, I continue to scan old photos, open old books, and the echoes of days semi forgotten still sounds – some, more clearly than others. 

The word “Nostalgia” is credited to the 18th century Swiss physician Johannes Hofer, who used it to describe an ailment he observed in Swiss soldiers longing for home.  It is a combination of the suffix “algia”, a medical condition involving pain, and “nost”, generally referring to returning to home.   But nostalgia is rarely a completed whole. People don’t usually keep pictures of sad events – most are posed, smiling, happy gatherings – not the fullness of daily life. So there is a risk that looking back becomes a hypnotic way to escape the present – hence, the longing that we often hear referred to in the news to a return to “normalcy”. 

But wishing for a return to life as it “was” cannot be the path ahead. 

Seeking to escape would be missing the opportunity to build life anew. I suggest we do not need to go back, but neither do we need to destroy or disrespect the past – we cannot fully know it now, we didn’t understand it then, but our feelings remain.  We must find what matters in our sense of loss yet seek to move towards a different path of fulfillment as we move forward.  The example that I want to share today, a visit along my own memory map, is one that perhaps many of a certain age in Northern California can relate to – but if not, there is a place in your past, almost certainly, that corresponds. Perhaps my look back will bring yours to memory as well. 

Vacaville, illustrations of early groves and homes

I have mentioned before that I was born and lived the first few years of my life in Vacaville, west of Sacramento – because my father worked at the nearby Fairfield state prison.  Did you know Vacaville literally means Cow Town?  But, it is in fact named Vacaville because the land was part of a large parcel purchased from a Manuel Vaca.  In fact, it is quite likely that when my great great grandfather, Robert Titus Pence, captained a wagon train to Hangtown – now Placerville – in the Gold Rush, he came along the very trail that led through the small community – established as a township in 1851, and a city in 1892.  I doubt my mother knew 60 years ago that her ancestor came to California through that then still little town a century earlier! 

In 1855, another pioneer family settled in the community of Vacaville, and a few years later a 12-year-old niece was travelling to join them from Iowa, when she picked up some walnuts in Arizona, planting them in her new home.  The tree that grew there became a source of new life in the valley, and shade for travelers heading further west on the trail.  The family fruit ranch prospered and on Independence Day weekend 1921, they began a small fruit stand that in 1921 led to a restaurant, and the “Nut Tree” became a stop along the Highway 40, and then Interstate 80. 

By the time my family moved in the mid 50’s, there was a toy shop, a railroad, and a small airport for fly in visitors. I have a few childhood photos, but no real memories – we moved before my 4th birthday back to southern California. Yet, my Mom always talked about the Nut Tree, and among her effects I found one of those 60’s embossed Nut Tree credit cards with raised numbers, long before magnetic strips, as well as a “Nut Tree Railroad” spike, attached to a card, as a souvenir – as well as these two postcards from the 60’s. 

The Nut Tree Restaurant – Yes, that’s how people dressed to eat out!

The cookie counter always featured amazing shapes and colors.

When my career began in the 80’s to take me north on assignments, I visited – and shopped. The restaurant was well known for “California Cuisine”; the toy store was filled with incredible delights, and the little train stopped right outside the door.  Over the years, that train carried famous folk like Richard Nixon and Bozo the Clown (presumably, on separate trip)! I took these photos probably in 1982 or so, of the interior area – they still had the wonderful cookies that could be personalized for,a special treat.  In the 70’s they had opened a San Francisco location at 655 Beach Street, which I also visited.  I think I might still have some cookie cutters from that trip!  I also purchased this 1976 set of recipe cards, and many times have served their “Chess Pie” at gatherings (it was easy to make!) 

This was a collection of various recipes sold as a packet in the 70’s.

But after several generations of family ownership, thousands of visitors, meals, cookies, train rides and more … business dwindled, and financial issues and other factors led to the closure of the Nut Tree complex in 1996.    In 1997 the Vacaville Museum – not far from my childhood home, on Camellia Way – had a special exhibit on the Nut Tree, including this commemorative recipe book filled with photos and memories. (The cookbook, shown below, is still available for purchase at http://www.vacavillemuseum.org). 

Really a wonderful book, delicious recipes and a loving collection of memories.

The museum also had a tribute exhibition to the art of Don Birell, who had been the “design director” for the Nut tree for nearly 40 years, beginning in 1953.   He was born in 1922 (a year after the Vacaville fruit stand was opened) in Corona, California (where my family moved after leaving Vacaville!) He studied at the prestigious Chouinard Institute – later becoming part of Cal Arts – before becoming director of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento (WELL worth a visit, friend!) His style can be seen everywhere in Vacaville, to this day.  I bought this print of his “Flower Arabesque” and it remains at my desk, the vibrant colors and intricate creatures reminding me that life goes on, and beauty continues – even more than Solomon in all his glory.  

My little print of “Flower Arabesque” by Don Birell

The late artist, Don Birell, Art Director for Nut Tree, with a painting of Vacaville

I remember coming through Vacaville for work after college, only to find the fenced off, dilapidated buildings and deserted parking lot. The buildings were demolished in 2003, and two years later, the Coffee Tree, a related restaurant, was torn down as well.  But Vacaville grew – from about 3000 in 1950, to 11,000 in 1960, and today – more than 100,000.  On the other side of I-80, the outlet center draws visitors – but in 2006, through the magic of redevelopment, Nut Tree Plaza opened and remains today.  Last year, for my birthday, we visited Vacaville; the playground area is full of reminders of original atmosphere, including the train with the little whistle which literally brought back memories, and a new “vintage” carousel.  The Jelly Belly outlet is nearby – based in Fairfield, where I was born – and a Fenton’s creamery filled with families and overpriced sundaes for all.  

But it isn’t the Nut Tree of my memory – and that’s actually a good thing.  Next year, 2021, would be the 100th anniversary of the little roadside fruit stand; that first walnut tree, planted in 1860, was removed in 1952, before my family arrived.  The business itself lasted less years than the tree it was named for! Because – well, probably many factors, but because people ultimately weren’t looking for what the Nut Tree represented anymore.  It was a thing of the past, before it itself passed.  

To everything, there is a season.  With conflicting calls for some things of history to go, and some to remain – the reality is, everything in time – disappears.  I am not an advocate for forced destruction of something that someone finds offensive – but I understand, to some degree hopefully if remotely, the passion that exists on both sides of these reminders of the past.  But in reality, at some point – things no longer serve the purpose for which they were created.  Do we pine for them to come back, in some kind of fantasy?  Is the “new” Nut Tree better than the original, or is it even going to survive all this current uncertainty itself to it’s 15th year, compared to the 50 year plus run of the one of my childhood? 

Nostalgia can be a pleasant little vacation from the present, but we risk sinking in the quicksand of memory at the cost of embracing the power of now and the possibilities of tomorrow.Living I the past – only existing in the present – is the road to our own irrelevance in this living, breathing, chaotic reality whose uncertain path refutes all our assumptions about control, for the first time in many of our lives.  I am happy to revisit my Nut Tree memories, and Vacaville, but I do not mourn it – just as some day, others will remember Disneyland or the Louvre or cell phones, or the documents, images and histories that have always been our only reality. Given enough time – they too will fade, many forever. Your memories and mine, will be forgotten, if not by us – at some point, by those who remain.  Pieces may endure – the same pieces I dig through now, trying to preserve those stories and photos of my parents and ancestors for the next generation – if they will care. But this is not a cause for sadness.  

At my childhood home …. 61 years after my birth, in 2019.

We gain a kind of freedom, and perhaps peace as well, when we accept the transitory, impermanent nature of the issues and concerns that loom so large in our individual lives today – and when we realize our ability to impact larger forces is limited, but our power to love those who enter and exit our life is immeasurable.  In that knowledge, we can choose to take the actions that touch lives around us in ways that endure – that will never perhaps be photographed, written down or even remembered, yet like ripples from a pebble building into something larger, change our world. 

Thanks, friend – for joining my meandering journey down this little memory lane. I hope it brings to mind some of your own. And for both of us, I hope we can balance our cherished memories, and treasured values, with an eagerness and boldness to make more – not just for ourselves, but those in our hearts today, and yet to join us, on the journey ahead.

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I am exploring, growing, contributing and learning. I am married, retired in San Francisco California, and pursuing new interests and making new friends.

4 thoughts on “A Nut Tree grew in CowTown”

  1. Norm —

    Many years ago, while it still existed, I stopped and dined at the Nut Tree. Recall I was with my Mom and it was her idea. She previewed it as a remarkable place with excellent food and more, and, in the event, it was that and more. Your photos bring beack memories, thanks.



  2. Thank you for sharing this memory. I grew up not far from Vacaville. I remember family drives there just to look around. You see, we had no money then, and all the goodies at the Nut Tree were for us to view but never buy. Now with a family of my own, we have traveled up that way and always stop in Vacaville for a break and to shop. I miss the Nut Tree and the Coffee Tree.


  3. I identify with many of your memories of the Nut Tree and was so disappointed when I found out it had finally closed. I am also a fan of the design aesthetic, so it was a treat to see your post! I was born in Fairfield, but left the area by are 3. Thank you for sharing the wonderful essay, photos and prints which transported me back to special outings with my grandparents and many stop offs during long road trips through Northern CA.


    1. I am so happy you enjoyed the article – I am amazed when somehow people find my posts, and it’s gratifying when they touch hearts. There is a Nut Tree cookbook the museum put out a number of years ago, it’s another way to remember those tasty treats!


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