When you’re from the Midwest there is something delightfully sinful about dining alfresco in February. Instead of trundling from one artificially heated environment to the next, you’re actually out in the environment. As we sat in the floral oasis of The Garden Cafe it was easy to see why Yuma’s population doubles every winter as flocks of snowbirds escape to a warmer clime.
The restaurant is closed during the summer because it’s outside and it gets to be above 100 degrees, so we were fortunate to be there at the end of February. They feature local produce, and since Yuma’s the Winter Vegetable Capital of the World, producing 93% of the leafy greens the rest of the country eats, our amuse bouche salads were as fresh as they could possibly be. For our entrees, Jim had a tri-tip burrito and I had a tri-tip salad, because, when in Yuma...We still hadn’t found out why that particular cut of meat was a “thing” in this town, but it tasted great, so who really cares?
We left the cafe and walked down the narrow alley lined with birdcages to enter the Sanguinetti House Museum & Garden. E. F. Sanguinetti was one of the town’s favored sons, considered the “Merchant Prince of Yuma” and someone who made a profound impact on the community. The Italian-American arrived in Yuma from California in 1882 when he was just 15. He began working in a grocery store and saved enough money to buy into his employer’s firm and eventually build his own chain of stores.
Known as a natty dresser with a predilection towards three-piece suits and top hats, Sanguinetti introduced the cash and carry concept of grocery shopping. Customers were now able to walk in, pick out their items, and pay for them. It was a new concept for a town that was used to ordering their items in advance. He also had a hand in farming, ranching, banking, real estate, electricity, and ice houses. He amassed a fortune, but what seemed to impress Yumans the most was that when Sanguinetti lost it all due to a bad cotton deal in the 1920s, instead of declaring bankruptcy and shirking his debts, he worked his way out and paid them all back.
The museum, which is part of the Arizona Historical Society, is located in the surprisingly modest adobe home where he raised his family. The front room was decorated as it would have been in Sanguinetti's time, including the lighting. I was particularly enthralled by the organ. My grandparents, and now my parents, have one that was very similar. Part of the museum was devoted to Sanguinetti and his legacy, while the rest featured special exhibits.
“Secrets of Victorian Yuma” was the theme during our visit and we were led through this period of Yuma’s past by museum director Yanna Kruse. In her high heels and fringed skirt and animated delivery, she brought the past to life as she regaled us with a quick lesson on the language of handheld fans. The fans were necessary in an era before air conditioning, and since lads and ladies were never to be alone a shorthand of sorts developed. If the fan was open, the young lady was expressing interest. If she dropped it on the floor, her potential suitor knew that she just wanted to be friends. And if she brushed it on her right cheek, well, then, he might have started blushing because she just declared her love.
During the tour Yanna assigned us character roles, a clever way to ensure participation. One gentleman was a politician, another was a brakeman. Jim was a post-mortem photographer, and the other lady was a madam. Me? I was a Lady of the Evening. (Shhh. All of you.)
This approach to storytelling, as well as the museum’s Touching Allowed policy, made this visit to Yuma’s past a fun romp instead of a dusty, dull trudge.
We left the museum through the gift shop, custom chocolates in hand, and strolled through the lovely rose garden before turning ourselves in at our next destination.