Originally from upstate New York, Robert Jones came to Minneapolis in 1876. He got a job delivering meat and managed to scrape up $500 to buy a fish market on Hennepin Avenue. Jones was known “The Oyster King” after he took out an ad in the St. Paul Pioneer Press with an illustration of himself as a bird with oysters for wings. Owning the fish market also earned him the nickname “Fish”. Jones raised a few eyebrows and attracted quite a bit of attention when he decided to tether a bear in front of his market. The success of his business allowed Jones to start collecting animals. It wasn’t long before he had a camel and a couple tigers in cages on the third floor of his building.
In 1886 he sold his fish market and bought a three acre farm on the edge of downtown. Jones converted the property into a zoo and acquired six lions from South Africa, a couple of cougars, jaguars, leopards, bears and herd cattle from the Holy Land. City officials became skeptical as the amount of animals grew. After receiving noise complaints from the neighbors, Jones sold his land to the Catholic Church and they built the Basilica of St. Mary on it. In 1906, he opened Longfellow Gardens in a beautiful meadow near Minnehaha Falls. The facilities were elaborate, Jones redirected Minnehaha Creek to make swimming ponds for seals. He built a monkey house, aviary and an arena for tiger, bear and elephant performances. In keeping with the theme, Jones built a two thirds scale replica of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Fish” lived there, beside the creek for the rest of his life. The zoo was popular and over 60,000 people came through the gates the first year.
Jones added zebras, monkeys, orangutans and a polar bear from Norway. His bird collection included a Grey Crowned Crane, flamingos and several storks. The zoo was probably best know and remembered for it’s seals and the man-eating tiger, personally captured by animal collector Frank Buck in Johore, India. After “Fish” passed away in 1930, his relatives kept zoo open for a couple years.
Times were tough and when the money ran out the zoo was closed down. Many of the animals were sold to Captain Billy Fawcett for his Breezy Point menagerie. Others went to Como Zoo in St. Paul. In 1934, the land was given to the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board. Robert Jones’ house served as a library for a number of years. It was moved closer to the falls during light rail construction at the turn of the century. These days the old place is open as an interpretive center from Memorial Day to Labor Day.