Downtown Minneapolis once home to eccentric zoo

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May 14, 2014 // UPDATED 8:54 pm - May 14, 2014
By: Kim Simmonds
Kim Simmonds

You’ve probably passed it on your way to Minnehaha Falls, but you might not have noticed it.

At the corner of East Minnehaha Parkway and Minnehaha Avenue in Minneapolis sits a small yellow house in the Georgian style. The Longfellow Zoological Gardens was run here from 1906 to 1934. Thousands of visitors flocked to the site every year to watch the performing seals and roaring lions, but that is not the beginning of the story.

 Before the Minnesota Zoo, before the Como Zoo, and even before the Longfellow Zoo, the first zoo in Minnesota was opened on the third floor of a thriving fish market at 308 Hennepin Ave. in downtown Minneapolis.

In 1878, Robert Fremont Jones, an eccentric entrepreneur originally from New Hampshire, established a fish market to supply fresh seafood to the metropolitan area. His focus was on selling quality packed oysters sent by refrigerated car from the East Coast, and, according to Jones, “It was an overnight success.”

Having been an animal lover since his youth, “Fish,” as Jones was nicknamed, had an aquarium built in his store so that he could showcase rare species of fish and turtles.

Jones, always the self-promoter and unfailingly dressed to the nines in a Prince Albert suit, high heels and a silk top hat, soon added a seal to his collection to attract business.

Attract business it did, and Jones gradually installed more animals on the upper floor of his shop. In 1885, Jones sold the fish market and purchased a farm at 1600 Hennepin Ave., the current site of the Basilica of St. Mary. He moved his menagerie to the heavily wooded lot and continued to add to it. Soon Jones was sharing the grounds with horses and Russian wolfhounds, which he bred, as well as lions, camels and other animals. Jones’ favorite lion, Hiawatha, was born on the site. He also maintained a “fancy poultry farm” at the site, and the eggs produced by his chickens sold for $1 apiece.

Jones loved to publicize his zoo by parading his animals downtown. He was often seen driving elegant carriages pulled by his teams of horses up and down Hennepin Avenue, his Russian wolfhounds trailing behind. One winter, a parade down Nicollet Avenue led to some backlash. The public though the cold weather too harsh for Jones’ camel. The eccentric showman responded by having a sweater and a pair of pants made for the desert animal.

Neighbors soon began to complain about the zoo’s smell, as well as roars and other noises. Jones chose to sell his land to the archdiocese in 1906, and purchased a plot of land called the Longfellow Lakelet near Minnehaha Falls that same year. Soon after his purchase, Jones made a trip to Europe on behalf of the Twin City Rapid Transit Company to acquire animals for a zoo to be opened on Lake Minnetonka. When the plans for the zoo fell through, Jones kept the animals and opened his own zoo near the popular falls.

Today’s guest blogger is Kim Simmonds, alumna of the Augsburg College history program. A public historian currently working in a haunted historic house in Deadwood, South Dakota, Kim became fascinated with “Fish” Jones and began recording her findings on the Robert Fremont “Fish” Jones Facebook page while working for the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board. In the first part of two, Kim writes about the man with a love of Longfellow and animals.

The Historyapolis Project seeks to bring fresh attention to the history of Minneapolis and is working to unearth stories that can explain how the city took shape. For more details visit our website at www.historyapolis.com. This project has been made possible by the Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, which is administered by the Minnesota Historical Society. Find it on FB at www.facebook.com/TheHistoryapolisProject

(Photo of 1600 Hennepin Avenue, c. 1885 is from the Minnesota Historical Society.)