The Inimitable Robert ‘Fish’ Jones: The dandy zookeeper of Minneapolis

Robert “Fish” Jones with two of his chimpanzees // Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

You’re walking down a busy street in Minneapolis in the late 1800s. You have a list of items that you need to purchase, are juggling the parcels you have already picked up, and you are scanning your list to figure out the next place you need to stop. With your head down, ready to fall into a fountain like cell phone users of today, you halt suddenly when you hear a loud, gruff snort coming from directly in front of you. Slowly, you look up from your list, and there, just feet away, is a bear. 

Yes, folks, a frickin’ full-sized bear, standing on its hind legs, seemingly ready to lurch forward in attack. Your eyes grow huge, and just as you are about to throw everything in the air and run screaming for your life, a small man in a top hat and heels steps out of an adjoining shop, pats the bear lovingly on the head, and invites you in to peruse his selection of fresh oysters and fish, just arrived on a refrigerated boxcar from the East Coast.

If such a stunt would draw you into the shop, that’s exactly what Robert “Fish” Jones was counting on.

Robert Fremont Jones, known to Minneapolitans as “Fish,” was raised in upstate New York. In 1873, he moved to Hudson, Wisconsin, to become part-owner of his brother-in-law’s provisions store before moving to Minneapolis in 1876 to become a partner in a city market business. While waiting for his work to begin, Jones frequented many restaurants asking for seafood dishes. Again and again, Jones was told that no one sold seafood in Minneapolis. Inspiration struck, and Jones, working with some East Coast contacts to ship seafood by refrigerated rail car, started a small fish market downtown in 1878. Located at 308 Hennepin Avenue, the fish market became an overnight success.  

As the business became more profitable, Jones built an aquarium to showcase his rare fish and turtles, as well as a seal and a number of birds, which he housed on the third floor of the fish market. Always immaculately dressed in a Prince Albert suit, high-heeled dress shoes (to make himself seem taller), and a silk top hat, Jones would join his bear (no, I wasn’t kidding about the bear) just outside the shop to usher customers into the building, both to purchase fish and to view the living zoo within. Eventually his love of animals won out over hawking fish for a living, so in 1885 he sold his market and purchased a home at 1600 Hennepin Avenue, the site of the current day Basilica of Saint Mary, where he could grow his menagerie.

Jones filled the grounds with mainstay farm animals like horses and chickens. He also bred Russian wolfhounds, to which he was immensely dedicated, and had lions, tigers, monkeys, and camels that made their home on the property. His favorite lion, named Hiawatha after the epic poem, “Song of Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was born on-site. Jones and his animals all lived a happy existence in the wooded location for a few years, with many of them eating right at the dining room table with him. Residents remembered Jones driving elegant carriages downtown while wearing a velveteen riding suit and English patent leather riding boots, his Russian wolfhounds trailing behind.

Some of the lions, including Fish Jones’ beloved Hiawatha on show // Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

However, this blissful existence was broken up by a couple incidents that caused Jones to look for another home for his furry friends. Over the years, he received several fines from the Minneapolis Humane Society, who believed that Jones wasn’t properly caring for his animals.  An example of his supposed “cruelty to animals” occurred one winter when Jones led a parade of animals down Nicollet Avenue as part of his self-promotion. Onlookers raised some concern over whether a Bactrian camel, an animal that itself comes from cold climes, was being kept warm enough when outside during the Minnesota winters. The eccentric showman responded by having a pair of pants and a sweater knit for the animal. Additionally, as the area around Jones’ property became more residential, his neighbors began to complain of the not-so-flowery odor that permeated the area, as well as Hiawatha’s tremendous roars at all hours in the night, which in turn set all of the other animals into a frenzy.

Left, “Fish” Jones with an anteater. Right, Jones plays with some bear cubs // Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

In 1906, Jones sold his wooded farm, and purchased a property just a short distance away from Minnehaha Falls. There, Jones built a replica of the poet Longfellow’s house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to pay homage to his muse, as well as a private park for all of his animals. That same year, Jones took a trip abroad on behalf of the Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company to acquire animals for a zoo they were planning to build. When the company changed their plans, however, Jones jumped at the opportunity to first rent, then buy the animals from them, and expand his vision into a zoo that everyone could visit: The Longfellow Zoological Gardens.

When the zoo opened in 1907, it proved incredibly popular, with 60,000 visitors flocking to the site within the first two months of opening. Jones built a miniature train around the site to make it easier for his visitors to get around, with the cars named after characters from the “Song of Hiawatha.” He also diverted Minnehaha Creek, which ran around the property, to create pools for his seaworthy animals. His seals were arguably the most popular attraction at the zoo, and daily performances drew huge crowds. The year that the zoo opened, three of the seals decided to put on a show of their own when they escaped from their cage. Two of the seals were recaptured almost immediately, but one of the seals made its way down Minnehaha Creek, over the falls, and down the Mississippi River to Red Wing before it was caught.

Robert “Fish” Jones showing off the seals to visitors at the Longfellow Zoological Gardens. One of his seals made it over the Minehaha Falls and down the Mississippi to Red Wing // Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Longfellow Zoological Gardens remained a popular attraction throughout its existence, except, perhaps to the neighboring properties. In 1922, a group of neighbors submitted a petition to the Minneapolis Park Board, asking them to acquire and condemn the property. By 1924, Jones had agreed to deed the property to the Park Board on the condition that he could run it for 10 more years. Jones continued to run the zoo until 1930 when he passed away, and his heirs fought to keep the zoo in their possession, even taking the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court. In 1934, the heirs arranged for the animals to go to the Como Zoo in St. Paul, and in 1937, the Park Board officially took over the property. Some neighbors banded together at that time and petitioned the Park Board to keep the zoo open, but the zoo was ultimately closed that same year. 

A few artifacts from Jones’ zoo days remain around Minneapolis. There is a statue of Longfellow that was dedicated to the site in 1908, which is still in place near Minnehaha Creek on the west side of the land bridge spanning Highway 55; a silk top hat and the hide of Hiawatha, Jones’ favorite lion, are both in the care of the Hennepin History Museum; and of course, the house is still available to visit in the summer, though it was moved just east down East Minnehaha Parkway from its original location. Unfortunately, no bears will be there to invite you in.