Lions, Oysters, and Bears: A Fishmonger's Tale

Robert "Fish" Jones was an odd little man with expansive and spectacular tastes. When out about town, he compensated for his lack of physical stature with a fantastically tall black silk hat of the type then called a "topper." From the last decades of the Nineteenth Century and well into the Twentieth, Jones's distinctive hat was often seen bobbing along Hennepin Avenue behind a team of magnificent black and gray stallions. On one occasion, the hat was spotted by pedestrians entertaining the headgear of personages of no less prominence than General Ulysses S. Grant and presidential brother Robert Lincoln. On another, Jones's hat was seen steering a pink baby carriage down Nicollet Avenue with a cargo of chattering monkeys. I recently happened upon Jones's old topper in the archived collection of the Hennepin History Museum. The hat itself was slightly battered during a legendary 1903 fistfight with the city editor of the Minneapolis Times, but it seemed in a remarkably firm state for its age.

Fish's old city haunt, near the corner of Third Street and Hennepin in downtown, is in considerably worse shape. The site of Jones's fish market-cum-menagerie is now occupied by a cheerless high-rise apartment building. On sunny afternoons, the mostly elderly tenants sit on the concrete patio in front of the building to chain-smoke and watch buses troll past on Hennepin Avenue. A few blocks south, the lot that was once home to the Great Northern Market, Block E, is now a hole in the ground waiting for redevelopment as a shopping complex, cineplex, or luxury hotel. In the opposite direction, where the old city market once stood, there is nothing but a surface parking lot. Watching the smoking bus-spotters last week, along with the continual flood of traffic, and the neglected lots of downtown started me thinking about how this little corner of the city has changed since the regally behatted Jones and his simian entourage last strolled by a century ago.

In Fish Jones's day in the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century, this was the heart of the metropolis--not so much a place people went as a place people were. The city's central market was then located northwest of Nicollet Mall (which was not a mall at the time), near what is now the intersection of First Avenue and First Street. Known originally as the Harlow Gate Market in honor of its founder and located in an old YMCA building with a large open courtyard, the marketplace offered every manner of fruit and vegetable, carted in daily by farmers from outlying fields. The abundance was such that among the only items not available to marketgoers were fresh oysters. So it was that Robert Jones entered the victuals business.

After relocating from upstate New York in 1876, Jones took a job delivering meat for one of the burgeoning produce merchants. Finding the meat business less appealing than he'd anticipated, Jones took his small stake of $500 and invested in a small fish market at Third Street and Hennepin Avenue. He began importing fresh fish and oysters by refrigerated train from the East Coast. The business flourished; Jones even took out a full-page ad on the front of the Pioneer Press featuring a portrait of himself as a bird with oysters for wings, and the caption "The Oyster King." He also acquired the sobriquet that stuck for the rest of his life; and a grateful fish wholesaler presented him with a gift--the peculiar topper.

As it turned out, however, Jones's interest in wildlife ran much deeper than oysters and flounder. In a gossip column from a 1903 edition of the Minneapolis Tribune, buried amid news of marriages, graduations, and picnics, is one exceptionally puzzling announcement: "R.F. Jones has just imported a family of six South African lions, jaguars, leopards, cinnamon bears, a dromedary, and a herd of sacred cattle from the Holy Land."

The bear was set in front of the fish market, secured to a post, and left to amaze and frighten pedestrians. The rest of the menagerie took up residence on the third floor of the Jones market, along with an assortment of turtles and birds, and a pair of pure white Russian wolves who accompanied Jones on his walks about downtown. Jones also added a pair of seals to his collection, one of whom was in later years rumored to have escaped by swimming down Minnehaha Creek and leaping over the falls. Although Jones's animals were a success with customers, there was some early trouble. In a characteristic publicity stunt, Jones lent two of his tigers to a downtown department store for its display windows--where one of the tigers promptly killed the other. While the incident certainly puts Dayton's holiday window dressing to shame, it was not good business for Jones. The publicity problem was exacerbated when the enterprising showman led a camel down Hennepin Avenue in icy February, raising charges of mistreatment. (He finally quieted cries of animal abuse by commissioning a pair of pants and a sweater for the beast.) In 1886, Jones sold the fish market and moved his menagerie south to his three-acre farm. To round out his embryonic zoo, he added a pet lion, which he named Hiawatha after the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

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