Click Here to Print This Story!   Click Here to get a PDF Copy of this Story!   

Sunday, July 07, 1996

Nut Tree: American as Mom’s apple pie

Kristin Delaplane

By 1951, the famed origi-nal tree for which the Nut Tree got its name was uprooted and the event was properly noted by Herb Caen, columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle:

“Historic note: The world’s largest black walnut tree at the Nut Tree nr. Vacaville on the Sacramento highway was uprooted Wed. On acct. It was about to topple over. A new tree was immediately planted on the spot by 93-yr.-old Mrs. Hester Harbinson, mother-in-law of the Nut Tree’s owner, and that’s a bit of a coin-cidence. The old walnut tree was 93 years old, too . . .”

Harvey Felt, then shop tea-cher at the Rio Vista Joint Union High School, obtained a round from the tree when it was cut down. The round mea-sures about 4 feet across.

Wilber (Wee Willie) Wil-kens, the school’s football coach and teacher, had the job of cutting down the tree. He lived in Vacaville and it was his custom during his time off to cut firewood for the restaurant.

Wilkens took a round for himself and one for Felt. Wil-kens’ round was made into a table. Felt’s round was sur-faced by one of his students and was displayed in Felt’s of-fice. He recently donated it to the Vacaville Museum for its collection. It will be a promi-nent feature of the museum’s 1997 exhibit on the Nut Tree.

Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Nut Tree was one of the few places that iced beer glasses. In 1950, San Francisco Chroni-cle columnist Stanton Dela-plane noted in his syndicated travel column that he only knew a few other places that did so. One was the Brown Derby in Hollywood; some res-taurants in New Orleans also followed the practice.

As the reader has guessed, or already knew, Stan and I were well-acquainted. He raised me, and on occasion I gave him a tip or two. One thing we definitely agreed on was that a stop at the Nut Tree was mandatory as we headed for places east of Sau-salito.

In 1952, he made a trip to Reno. In those days, the Lin-coln Highway meandered through Vallejo, Fairfield and Vacaville. By then Bay Area, travelers had been on the road a long time. Dad wrote:

“I never pass the Nut Tree. Always stop. They have very fine draught beer and they ice the mugs. This may seem a mi-nor matter but I think it is v-ery important.

“The vagabond sandwich is a thing you make yourself. They bring you a child’s size loaf of bread with bread board and small bread knife. Also a plate full of ham, cheese, pickles and mustard and such. From there on, you make it two decks, three decks or just cut the loaf in half and fill it. It is very fine and pleas-ant.”

In the 1960s, Dad’s pal Herb Caen picked up on the bread board thing in his column:

“NOTHING GOES TO WASTE IN AMERICA DEPT.: Those extremely popular round bread boards sold at the Nut Tree on Highway 40 are made by the Neal Smith Co. of Dorchester, Wis. When I tell you that Mr. Smith is a manufacturer of toilet seats, you’ll know in a flash where those round bread boards come from. Neat?”

Back in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the Nut Tree of-fered a new service, but for all the Nut Tree’s ambiance, Caen didn’t quite think it rated the following:

“Air Dorado, the amphibian outfit that flies out of Pier 48, is about to launch the dmmdest service I ever did hear about. You fly out at noon to Vacaville (VACA-VILLE???), lunch at the famed Nut Tree there on Highway 40 and fly back in time to be in your office again at 2 p.m. The Nut Tree is a nice place and all that, but whaaaat? . . .”

Many famous people in-cluded the Nut Tree on their itinerary, but as Caen re-ported, it was perhaps off the route for Peter Gluckmann in 1958:

“If you’ve left a watch for repair in Peter Gluckmann’s shop on Lick Place, I advise you to rush right down and get it. Tomorrow the “Flying Watchmaker” will pile into his single-engine Bonanza and take off for lunch at the Nut Tree via South America, Af-rica, Spain, France and En-gland. That is, the Nut Tree (the historic restaurant nr. Va-caville) is the last stop on his itinerary, early in May. Mr. Gluckmann has lost 80 lbs. for this trip so he can carry more gas and figures to be pretty hungry. Hm? Oh, yes: the plane, not Peter, carries the gas . . .”

In 1953, the Nut Tree made Caen’s column again for a fa-mous visitor:

“A gray-haired man and four members of his family walked into the crowded Nut Tree restaurant on Highway 40 Sunday night and asked for a table. ‘You’ll have to wait,’ said the hostess. What’s your name?’ ‘Mr. Dean,’ said the man, stepping back into line and waiting patiently for a long time. Because he was wearing civvies, he couldn’t bring himself to answer the hostess’ question in a way that would’ve won him a table im-mediately - General William Dean, the POW hero of Ko-rea.”

Dad was a little treasure-mad. No doubt it was in the genes. His great-grandfather came out to the California +002 . 0000.00+gold fields and mined a small fortune. We made several ex-cursions to the gold country around the Fiddletown area where my great-great-grandfa-ther had his diggings.

Dad had a map so he knew the spot where John Berry Hill found a giant nugget. The gold pans would come out of the car and there we would spend the afternoon swishing our pans in the creek along-side our ancestor’s spirit.

John Berry Hill wrote his recollections from the gold fields when he was in his 80s for his hometown newspaper in Charleston, Ill. Dad milked the heck out of those recollec-tions for his column and for the sesquicentennial of the discovery of gold in California I will be publishing his writ-ings as a book. Local historian and gold prospector Jerry Bo-wen is supplying illustrations and historical text from that era to intersperse with my an-cestor’s tales.

Dad’s famous quest was seeking Pancho Villa’s grave. This he pursued for many years. Mexico beckoned again when the remains of DeAnza were discovered in a small church in the Mexican village of Arizpe, Sonora.

This was a big Bay Area news story. DeAnza founded the Presidio in San Francisco and is noted as one of the area’s first settlers. Dad jumped into the middle of the action as did Ed Power, part owner of the Nut Tree, and the publisher of this newspa-per, Richard Rico. Edwin Power, who founded the Nut Tree Airport in 1955, was a member of the Western Sher-iff’s Air Squadron. Twenty-five to 30 of the squadron’s planes arrived at that small Mexican village.

Robert Power, Ed’s brother and part owner of the Nut Tree, was another man on a quest. A dedicated historian, he was certain Sir Francis Drake had sailed into San Francisco Bay and explored its waters. Power ascertained a landing spot near San Quen-tin based on the fact that a plate of brass declaring it was placed there by Drake himself was discovered in that area.

Bob and Dad were fast friends, with their mutual in-terest in history and a love for the hunt. Power arrived at the family scatter one day. I was told to get my jacket, that we were off on a great adventure I was not to miss. We all bun-dled up to withstand the fog and headed out for the landing spot where Drake sup-posedly camped for 36 days. “And here, my daughter,” said my misty-eyed Dad, “was perhaps the exact spot where Sir Francis Drake himself stood.” (Since then the plate of brass was tested by many experts and declared bogus.)

During his tenure as presi-dent of the California Histori-cal Society, Robert Power joined forces with the Na-tional Maritime Museum of England to issue a replica commemorative medallion of the Vera Totius Expeditionis Nauticae, which was issued in 1977. This commemorated the 400th anniversary of Drake’s voyage around the world.

There were only five known surviving examples of the original map issued in London in 1589. The finest original was in the Robert H. Power Collection. The Drake Silver Medal Map can be viewed at Aaron’s Rod, a Vacaville an-tique store on Cernon Street.

Dad was still visiting the Nut Tree in the 1980s, his last decade:

“We came down from Echo Summit. At 4,000 feet the snow began to disappear. Chunks of melting snow dropped from the pines and crashed on the windshield.

And outside Placerville, the apple and pear trees were covered with white blossoms. A sure sign that spring is nearly here.

We stopped at the Nut Tree and I blew the leftover quar-ters in the little cheese and beer corner.”