An iconic Tucson landmark, the 16-foot tall cowboy boot on the east side of Sabino Canyon Road south of Tanque Verde Creek, originally served as a directional sign for the Rancho Del Rio dude ranch and Tack Room restaurant and now for the Vactor Ranch subdivision. The boot has had its own historical life.
In the late 1970s, Alma Vactor’s son Drew, who was raised and worked on the east side property when it was known as Rancho Del Rio, began managing the Tack Room. He felt the restaurant needed better signage.
His inspiration for the giant cowboy boot came from Rancho Del Rio’s logo, which was a cowboy boot on top of a mountain. In 1976, Drew commissioned artist Michael Kautza, who also built the wine bottle sign used for Boondocks Lounge on North First Avenue. Too large to transport, Kautza built the boot framework in two pieces in his back yard. After moving the hollow sculpture to Sabino Canyon Road, he added concrete and lettering.
In 1983 when the the City of Tucson decided to widen Sabino Canyon Road, the Vactors had the boot moved about 40 feet east and north — at a cost of nearly twice what the boot originally cost to make. A company from Phoenix jacked it up, put it on roller bars and railroad tracks for the move.
The boat, not made for walking, symbolizes the adaptability of the Vactor family in Tucson.
For $22,000 in 1940, Robinson Carr “Bob” Locke built Hacienda Moltacqua. The property served as a location for a party home overlooking Moltacqua racetrack, north of what would become the site of the Tack Room. Hacienda Moltacqua’s grounds were used for quarter horse and sulky racing.
Tanque Verde Creek flowed through the property then, flooding it during summer months. In 1943, Van Grant bought the property and converted the racetrack into a cotton farm.
In 1946, the property was sold to investors. They would develop the 200 acres into a dude ranch named Rancho Del Rio. Alma Vactor’s parents, Fan and Marvin Kane, were among the investors who had been coming to Tucson for winter visits in previous years staying at Rancho Nezone near Oracle and Orange Grove roads.
The Kanes eventually bought out their partners.
In 1952, before passing the reins to their 22-year-old son Jud, Marvin and Fan asked him to get his real estate license.
“My brother Jud thought I was a fabulous cook,” recalls Alma Vactor. “He immediately called to ask me if I would leave Cleveland for a few months each year to run the ranch’s food service.”
Alma, who had attended Tucson High during her parents’ winter visits, when on to attend Syracuse University but before graduating she quit and instead got a “Mrs.” degree.
Jud and Alma quickly took on the task of turning Rancho del Rio into a top-notch dude ranch. Gone were lunches consisting of peanut butter sandwiches, cottage cheese and Velveeta. They were replaced by Alma’s recipes prepared by a chef between twice daily horseback trail rides. At night the guests were treated to entertainment.
In 1944, Alma Kane and David Vactor were married in Cleveland. For the most part, David remained in Cleveland but, as a pilot, he would commute to Tucson regularly where Alma and Jud continued to run the ranch. In 1958, David Vactor moved permanently to Tucson.
David Vactor had a contract with the U.S. Forest Service flying his Cessna Skymaster to spot fires and to help transport fire fighting crews into fire areas.
In the early years, when air conditioning was a rarity, Rancho del Rio was closed from Easter through Thanksgiving. During the hot summer months, Alma and David took camping trips to every western national park from Tucson to Banff and Lake Louise, Alberta, with their three children, Drew, Wendy and Jill, all in tow.
“Actors Paul Newman and Joan Woodward and their children stayed with us, and lots of stars ate with us,” Vactor recalls. “When Paul Newman gave an autograph to Jud’s son Matthew Kane, he asked me if I thought ‘Uncle’ Paul would like to have a photograph of Dad?”
Lee Remick, Lee Marvin and Rosemary Clooney also frequented the ranch.
She recalled another time “when Steve McQueen came from the set dressed in Levis, a guest said ‘isn’t that disgusting?’ Telling her who he was, her mood quickly changed.”
By 1965 the Vactors grew tired of operating Rancho Del Rio. They closed the dude ranch and opened the Tack Room as a restaurant. Facing the sole operation of the Tack Room “was scary,” Vactor said.
“We were afraid no one would come so I ran around town and invited the dry cleaner, bank teller, grocery store cashier and others to dine complimentary at the Tack Room. By the second night we had a full house of paying customers,” she said.
Reminiscing about the restaurant, Vactor remembered a particular New Year’s Eve.
“We always served canapés at the bar about 9 p.m. followed by a beautiful buffet dinner at midnight. One year when I walked into the bar to find that no food was being served. I went into the kitchen to discover that the chef was drunk. I fired him on the spot and for the next two weeks, until I had a replacement, I became the chef,” she said. “Of course, we couldn’t let our more than 100 guests know. In those days the family ate with the guests. I would prepare the food so it was ready to serve then run out the back door to appear in the dining room as usual. At one luncheon, the lady seated next to me asked if she could go in the kitchen to compliment the chef. I told her that the chef had already left and asked if there were something I could tell him for her. She told me ‘We have been coming to Rancho del Rio for 10 years and we have never had meals as delicious as this year.’ I promised her I would pass her message to the chef. With a big smile, I returned to the kitchen to begin preparations for dinner.”
The Tack Room became noted for its cuisine. It was the only restaurant in the Southwest garnering 5-stars from Mobil starting in 1987 and five diamonds from AAA starting in 1992.
Leslie Kinkade, now a bartender at the Mountain Oyster Club, started at the Tack Room as a cocktail waitress. Anthony Martino, owner of Anthony’s in Foothills, got his start at the Tack Room.
Besides the restaurant, the Kanes and Vactors have left their marks on Tucson in other ways.
Vactor’s mother, Fan Kane, founded Tucson’s Cerebral Palsy Foundation and created the Fan Kane Foundation for Brain Injured Children, which in 1990 became the Kane Foundation Neurohabilitation Services for Children Inc. The nonprofit organization, now operated by the University of Arizona, serves children with special needs due to Traumatic Brain Injury or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Kane died in December 1990.
Meanwhile, in 1973 at the age of 44, Jud Kane received one of the first heart transplants performed by Dr. Jack Copeland at University Medical Center. Unofrtunately within six months the new heart — one donated by parents of a 12-year-old girl who died in traffic accident — was rejected by his body. He died while on a trip to Palo Alto, Calif.
In 1984, when Vactor was 59, husband David, who never smoked, contracted lung cancer and died. “He made me promise to travel, and I did. I went on at least a 100 cruises.”
She also went to work as a hostess for Golden Bear Travel, now owned by American Express Travel. She was responsible for entertaining affluent clients by organizing tours and cocktail parties on luxury cruise ships. This part of her career took her to 126 countries and through the Panama Canal on four occasions.
In 1999, while aboard a ship docking in Singapore, Alma suffered a stroke, the effects of which confined her to a wheelchair, and end her position as a ship hostess.
Back in Tucson in 1996, the area surrounding the Tack Room was developed into the 126-home Vactor Ranch. Drew Vactor retired after 26 years with the restaurant, which was sold to Bob McMahon’s Tucson-based Metro Restaurants. After spending more than $1 million on renovations to give the restaurant a new look while preserving its historical past, the Tack Room reopened found itself going against the trend toward more casual dining and was closed in May 2003.
Alma now lives on the Vactor Ranch in her own “family compound” with Drew and his wife Kandie. Kandie’s mother Lee, widow of furniture store owner Sam Levitz, also lived there until she died on Jan. 1 this year. Sadly, too, Alma has lost both of her daughters — Wendy in 2010 to an auto immune disease, and more recently her daughter Jill to ovarian cancer.
Alma recalls some of her fondest memories of Tucson were when the city’s population was about 45,000.
“I could go downtown or anywhere and know everyone. I love our mountains, our people, and the University of Arizona,” she said noting the UA is the alma mater for all of her children. She stays busy with friends and family, and her six grandchildren. She also plays mahjong.
“I have a revolving front door, people are in and out visiting me daily.”
Do you have a historical Tucson story to share? Contact Mary Levy Peachin at email@example.com. Her historical columns appear the first week of each month in Inside Tucson Business.