Monday, August 07, 2006

Vacaville's Acorn Won't Fall Too Far From the Nut Tree

Vacaville's Acorn Won't Fall Too Far From the Nut Tree
Popular Site's Development has Nostalgic Twist
Robert Hollis, Special to The Chronicle

The miniature steam train was always popular at the Nut Tree in Vacaville. The new development also is expected to include one. Photo courtesy of the Nut Tree

A big reconstruction of the Nut Tree land is taking place on the site along Interstate 80 in Vacaville. Photo by Robert Hollis, special to the Chronicle

Travelers of a certain age on old Highway 40 and later Interstate 80 vividly remember the Nut Tree. Generations of bored children pleaded, "Can we stop at the Nut Tree, please!"

On hot summer afternoons in the '70s and '80s, a stop at the tree-shaded roadside destination might include a ride on the miniature steam train that tooted and chugged among the orchards between the private Nut Tree airport and the station/toy store across the plaza from the famous Nut Tree restaurant.

Kids would jump from the family car and race to the big wooden rocking horses scattered about the plaza, even when summer temperatures soared past 100 degrees. Families suddenly liberated from their cramped, luggage-laden autos would queue up for ice cream, or check out the aviary as they waited to be seated in the main dining room. Others shopped for confections, the Nut Tree's trademark bread and baked goods or whimsical souvenirs at the sprawling emporium.

Begun as a rambling fruit stand just a few feet from the highway in 1921 by Helen and Bunny Power, the Nut Tree became a required stop for generations of travelers on the way to Tahoe or the coast.

When it opened for business, two-lane Highway 40 was then known as the Lincoln Highway. As the travel artery grew to its present eight lanes, the Nut Tree also grew. But by the 1990s, as travelers' habits changed, the popular spot went into decline. It closed in 1996.

Fast-forward a decade, and a new Nut Tree is rising on now-vacant land that was acquired by the city of Vacaville to keep the property intact, said Mike Palombo, Vacaville's economic development director.

With the exception of the original Nut Tree family farmhouse, the 80-acre site is being rebuilt, but with a nostalgic twist. When the first phase is finished later this year, travelers will again be able to stop and stroll among shops, restaurants, a family amusement park (with the trademark miniature steam train) and an open-air market.

When completed, the new Nut Tree will include two hotels and a conference center, 290,000 square feet of retail space, 180 condos and apartments, and 140,000 square feet of office space.

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