Former Petaluma City Schools superintendent captures saga of Vacaville’s Nut Tree in new book

When she turned 12, the minimum age for a work permit in those days, Diane Power Zimmerman began working at the Nut Tree, her grandparents’ ranch/food business consortium in Vacaville. Like her parents, aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins, she pitched in to support the remarkable success of the enterprise.

Now retired, the former Petaluma school administrator has captured her family’s 75-year Nut Tree saga in a new book, “Nut Tree: From a California Ranch to a Design, Food and Hospitality Icon.” In the course of doing so, Zimmerman paints a vivid portrait of an era when American families discovered automotive road trips and American entrepreneurs responded with places to pull over and get a bite.

Zimmerman, who has a doctorate in organizational development and has co-authored five books on educational administration, was superintendent of Old Adobe Union School District from 2002 until her retirement in 2011.

“I knew when I retired that I wanted to write about Nut Tree,” she said.

While she and her husband have a 60-acre farm in Suisun, they still live part-time in Petaluma, where she remains involved with several nonprofit organizations, including the Petaluma Educational Foundation.

The Nut Tree story she tells in her book began in 1921. Ed “Bunny” Power and his wife Helen had a bad crop year on Helen’s grandfather’s ranch in Vacaville. To eliminate the middle man, they set up a small fruit stand on the side of the road, under a large walnut tree.

By the following year, the Nut Tree was serving an average of 950 cars per day.

“In Vacaville, they laughed at my grandfather when he opened a roadside fruit stand,” Zimmerman said. “Nobody had done this before.”

But the time was right.

Americans were buying cars en masse and needed somewhere to go. And on the way to wherever they were going, they needed places to stop for food for themselves — and water for the radiator.

Shortly after Bunny and Helen opened the fruit store, Bunny realized they should open a restaurant.

“He said at the time that this was a business without limits,” Zimmerman said.

Bunny came from an artistic family with an entrepreneurial streak. He used both traits to pioneer marketing strategies such as gift-wrapped fruit and “approach billboards,” small signs on the highway that alerted approaching motorists that the Nut Tree was waiting for them.

Business boomed, driven by Bunny’s commitment to high quality products and Helen’s passion for treating both customers and employees well. When the Depression hit, the Nut Tree got through it relatively well by shipping choice fruit as far as Chicago and New York City. The mail-order business also helped the company survive the winters, when auto travel fell off.

Helen loved the business, the employees and the customers.

“She grew up on a ranch and knew how to work,” Zimmerman said. “By age 18 she was taking apart small engines. She worked every day of her life until her death in 1976.”

Bunny and Helen capitalized on the post-war boom by enlarging the restaurant and adding flower and gift shops. By 1949, the restaurant was serving 1,000 meals a day.

In 1953, Don Birrell was hired as design director, and his ideas would shape the Nut Tree “look” from then on. In the 1950s they added a toy shop — the scene of Zimmerman’s first job — an outdoor train, a retail store and an airport. In 1959 the Nut Tree Airport recorded 25,000 fly-in passengers. In 1961, Nut Tree Plaza was opened, and in 1962 Richard Nixon made a campaign stop there. Other guests who visited over the years included chef Julia Child and astronaut Neil Armstrong, and even Queen Elizabeth I of England tasted the efforts of Nut Tree food-makers when a Sacramento dinner was catered by the Nut Tree.

It was not until 1964 that the iconic, 72-foot-high Nut Tree Tower sign was installed.

“Mine was a wonderful childhood, like growing up in a children’s museum,” Zimmerman said. “There was so much going on.”

The child-workers were rigorously trained in customer service, including how to make change.

“This was long before cash registers did the math for you,” she said.

Throughout its 75-year history, the Nut Tree never stopped innovating. Then, to the great disappointment of many, the business closed in 1996. A decade later, in 2006, it reopened under new management.

“What caused me to write the book was that when it closed, I was deluged with questions as to why,” Zimmerman said. Clearly, fans of the Nut Tree assumed that such a protean entity would never die. While the actual writing took about a year, there was a decade of contemplation, interviews and research. Fortunately for Zimmerman, at the Vacaville Museum she discovered a huge archive of Nut Tree memorabilia, newspaper clippings and photos. “I was overwhelmed by what they had. I had so many unanswered questions.”

In the course of answering those questions in her book, Zimmerman illuminates many interesting socioeconomic issues in California’s recent past.

She struggled initially with the structure of the book until she realized the value of the “story box,” longish sidebars that focus on a particular event or theme.

“They allowed me to tell stories backward and forward in time,” she said.

For example, the story box “Tearooms—The Domain of Women,” explains that when U.S. women gained the right to open a business in 1910, they began opening “tearooms,” initially places for women to congregate. Because men would not work under the direction of a woman, tearooms were staffed entirely by women. To increase revenue, these businesses began offering meals and gift items. And with the advent of Prohibition in 1920, they began serving men and their families.

Shortly after Prohibition arrived, Helen and her sisters Edith and Jule opened a tearoom and soon had a thriving business. Edith prepared the food, Jule serviced the soda fountain and Helen took care of the customers. Except for Chinese cooks, no men worked in the tearoom until the late 1940s.

The book, Zimmerman admits, was sometimes a challenge to write, and even more difficult to pitch to a publisher, because it fits no regular genre. It is a memoir, multi-generational family-business history, and portrait of a unique time and place.

By self-publishing the book, Zimmerman was able to incorporate many more photos into the text than would have been possible otherwise. Thanks to on-demand printing technology, she was able to use the high-quality paper she desired — and that a classy and beloved business like the Nut Tree clearly deserves.

Nut Tree: From a California Ranch to a Design, Food and Hospitality Icon“ is available at Vibe Galley and Copperfield’s Books in Petaluma and on Amazon.

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