By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
At the time, Hennepin Avenue south of downtown was one large muddy rut with some bits of road placed around it, and Loring Park was a swampy duck pond. The city soon encroached on Jones's farm, though, and before long he had landed in more trouble. Neighbors protested the "hideous noises" and "unpleasant aura emanating from the place." The lion, Hiawatha, also kept the neighborhood up at night (and certainly somewhat on edge) with constant, ravenous roaring. Jones, ever the slick businessman, managed to finagle a parcel of property near Hiawatha Creek and sold his farm to the Roman Catholic Church, who, Jones's detractors must have assumed, would prove a more congenial neighbor. The swampy farm where lions, tigers, and bears once roamed is now the site of the Basilica of St. Mary.
In 1906 Jones commissioned an architect to design a two-thirds replica of Longfellow's Colonial-style estate in Cambridge, Massachusetts (as with all his interests, his regard for the poet flirted with obsession). He built a monkey cage, seal pond, elephant corral, and an aviary on the grounds and opened Longfellow Gardens to the public. It was the first zoo in Minnesota and reportedly the largest private animal collection in the entire country. An advertising placard from 1925 shows the garden in all its glory, with neatly laid-out walking paths, symmetrically placed fountains, and rows of drooping willows running along the west bank of Minnehaha Creek. Beneath the photo is a quote from St. Francis of Assisi and a salutation signed by Fish Jones himself: "Admiring, approving, adopting the aged admonitions, with glad and kindly greetings, extend them unto you."
Despite persistent rumors of escaped tigers roaming the neighborhood and complaints about Hiawatha's constant rumbling, Jones and his menagerie flourished until his death in 1930. He'd signed over the property to the city on the condition that the gardens would remain open until 1934. It was said that on the day Jones died, the monkeys quit chattering, the birds stopped chirping, and even Hiawatha lay quiet in his cage.
Fish Jones now rests in a neat little plot in Lakewood Cemetery. His house is still standing, although it has deteriorated, been restored, deteriorated again, been restored again, turned into a haunted house and a library, left vacant, and finally vaulted across the road to make way for the Highway 55 reroute. After struggling to keep the zoo open, Jones descendants closed it down for good in 1936 and sold many of the animals to St. Paul's Como Park Zoo. Years later the surviving monkeys, tigers, and seals were loaded aboard an enormous river barge built by Fish's son, Roy Jones. Intending to start a floating circus, Roy set off down the Mississippi River with his latter-day Noah's ark for parts unknown.
Hiawatha the lion is still in residence in the attic of the Hennepin History Museum, hidden away with Fish Jones's walking stick and battered black topper. The neighbors no longer complain about the noise or the smell. Hiawatha is now a rug.