The Five Bears

This bear cage was built in Minnehaha Park in 1899 to house four black bears and one “cinnamon” bear. The 1899 report of the Minneapolis park board describes this bear “pit” built for the bears acquired by the park board over the previous few years. The cost of the construction was about $1200. It was built years before the private Longfellow Zoo was operated by Robert “Fish” Jones upstream from Minnehaha Falls. Many people believe, mistakenly, that the zoo in Minnehaha Park was Jones’s zoo. The park board began exhibiting animals in Minnehaha Park in 1894. Jones didn’t open his Longfellow Zoo until 1907, after the park board decided to get rid of most of the animals in its zoo. Jones spotted a lucrative opportunity to expand and profit from his own menagerie in the vacuum created by the park board’s decision.

"Psyche." That was the bried caption under this photo in the 1899 annual report of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners. I assume it was the bear's name.

“Psyche.” That was the brief caption under this photo in the 1899 annual report of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners. I assume it was the bear’s name. Later, the cages held bears named “Mutt,” “Dewey,” and “Chet,” a cub that was a crowd favorite in 1915. Dewey was badly hurt in a fall while trying to catch peanuts thrown from the crowd that year and had to be put down. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

The park board’s 1894 annual report contains the first inkling of what would become a sizable zoo. Superintendent William Berry reported,

“A deer paddock was enclosed, 50 feet square, and shelters built for deer. Two deer were added making a herd of three. Five eagles were presented to the park for which were made a cage covered with heavy wire netting.”

The financial portion of the report noted among maintenance expenditures at Minnehaha Park: Meat for eagles, $15. The next year the park board purchased three elk and accepted gifts of three more deer and three red foxes. For the deer and elk, “a portion of the glen was enclosed with a strong woven wire fence eight feet high, the length of the circuit being 2,950 feet.”

The gifts of animals kept coming and several animals were purchased, too, requiring new accommodations in Minnehaha Park. The 1897 annual report included this information from Berry, “A tank was made and enclosed for the retention of an alligator presented to the Board by the Grand Lodge B. P. O. E.” The alligator had been brought to a national convention of Elks in Minneapolis by the New Orleans delegation and left behind as a gift.

The unusual gift, matched by another free alligator the next year, lead to one of the oddest entries in the financial records of the board over the next few years. Each year the Mendenhall Greenhouse submitted its bill, increasing from $10.50 in 1898 to $14 in 1903, for “Keeping alligators in winter.” A tank in a greenhouse was the only place a warm weather creature could be housed for a Minneapolis winter. Native animals were left outside at Minnehaha, while non-native animals and exotic birds spent the winter in the park board barns at Lyndale Farmstead. Berry noted in 1899 that, “the collection of animals at the barns have proved quite an attraction and a large number of people visit them.”

By then the “collection” had become sizable and the costs had become significant, too. In the 1898 annual report William Folwell wrote,

“A list of animals now owned and kept in the parks is appended. They have been acquired by gift or at slight cost and form an attraction of no small account in the Minnehaha park. The expense of feeding and care has become considerable. A zoological garden is a great ornament to a city and is a most admirable adjunct to school education. The child who can see and study a moose, an eagle, an alligator, or any other strange beast of the field gets what no book can ever teach. It may be proper to continue the present policy, silently developed, of occasional additions to the collections as can be made at slight expense, but the matter ought not to go much further without a definite plan and counting of the cost.”

The list of animals Folwell mentioned shows that it was more than the “petting zoo” that some people think it was:
1 Moose
9 Elk
27 Deer
1 Antelope
4 Black Bears
1 Cinnamon Bear
38 Rabbits
1 Alligator
1 Ape
1 Dwarf Monkey
1 Gray Squirrel
1 Black Squirrel
10 Swans
16 Wild Geese
45 Ducks
1 Mountain Lion
2 Sea Lions
2 Timber Wolves
3 Red Foxes
1 Silver Gray Fox
4 Raccoons
2 Badgers
1 Wild Cat
5 Guinea Pigs
1 Eagle
4 Owls
5 Peacocks
6 Guinea Hens
1 Blue Macaw
1 Red Macaw
2 Cockatoos

It should be noted that not all of the birds lived at Minnehaha park. The swans and some other birds spent their summers at Loring Park. The sea lions and alligator were given new outdoor digs, which included a concrete swimming pool four feet deep, at Minnehaha in the summer of 1899. By then the park board was spending more than $2,000 a year on the care and feeding of its menagerie.

This was all a little too much for landscape architect Warren Manning who was asked to review the entire park system and make his recommendations in 1899. His sensible advice was to get rid of the exotic animals and keep only animals that could live outdoors in “accommodations that will be as nearly like those they find in their native habitat as it is practicable to secure.” Manning was ahead of his time in more than landscape architecture.

It was difficult, however, for the park board to divest a popular attraction. The park board did begin selling excess animals — including several deer to New York’s zoo — but Folwell wrote in the 1901 annual report,

“It is possible that as many people go to Minnehaha park to see the interesting animal collection as to view the historic falls.”

It took the coming of a new park superintendent in 1906 to resolve the issue. Theodore Wirth did not like the animals at Minnehaha, or in his warehouse all winter, and he felt the cramped conditions of some animals was cruel. As was his custom, he minced no words on the subject when he addressed the issue with the park board for the first time on February 5, 1906, barely a month after he took the job as park superintendent. The Minneapolis Tribune quoted Wirth in its February 6, edition:

“The present status of the menagerie is a discredit to the department and the city of Minneapolis…(it is) not only out of place and inharmonious with the surroundings, but to my mind even offensive to the highest degree. I am confident that H. W. S. Cleveland, who through his true artistic love, knowledge and appreciation of nature’s charms and teachings gave such valuable advice and suggestions for the acquirement and preservation of those grounds, would second my opinion in this matter and advise the removal of the menagerie from this spot.”

I’m sure Wirth was right about Cleveland; he would have detested the zoo. Wirth got his wish a little more than a year later when the park board reached agreement with R. F. Jones on his use of land above Minnehaha Falls for his private zoo. Ultimately the park board nearly followed the advice of Warren Manning: it kept the deer and elk in an outdoor enclosure similar to their natural habitat, but it also kept the bears in their pit and cages that didn’t resemble anything natural.

Evicting many of the animals from the zoo did not mean, however, that the park board quit acquiring animals altogether. The next year, 1908, the park board acquired a buffalo, on Wirth’s recommendation, and also acquired more bears. Of course, both animals could survive Minnesota winters outdoors. The hoofed animals remained in the park until 1923. I don’t know when the bear cages were closed or removed. The last information I have on bears in the park comes from the newspaper article in 1915 that reported Dewey’s demise. Theodore Wirth’s plan for the improvement of Minnehaha Glen, published in the park board’s 1918 annual report, still shows the bear pit beside the road to the Falls overlook.

Although the park board sent its exotic animals to R. F. Jones’s zoo in 1907, that was not the last time exotic animals were tenants on park board property. For the winter of 1911 Jones decided not to ship his “oriental and ornamental” animals and birds south for the winter. Instead he kept them in Minneapolis, where he could continue charging admission to see them, I’m sure. He found the perfect spot for such a winter display in the very heart of the city.

Jones rented the Center block at 202 Nicollet on Bridge Square from the park board. The park board had acquired the property for the new Gateway park in 1909-1910, but couldn’t develop the property until  tenants leases expired in the buildings it had purchased. As those leases expired, the park board certainly had ample empty space for which a temporary tenant would have been welcome. Jones needed short-term space in a heavily travelled location, and likely got it cheap. The Minneapolis Tribune reported October 22, 1911 that “Mr. Jones thinks that trouble and money can be saved by keeping (the animals) here throughout the entire year.”

A final thought. Minneapolis Tribune columnist Ralph W. Wheelock was more than a little suspicious of R. F. Jones famous story about a sea lion escaping from his zoo down Minnehaha Creek, over the Falls and out to the Mississippi River. This is what he wrote on July 10, 1907, shortly after Jones established his zoo:

“Prof. R. F. Jones, of the New Longfellow Zoo at Minnehaha Falls, announces through the press in a loud tone of voice that he has lost a sea lion. While we would not doubt the word of so eminent a scientific authority, when we recall the clever devices of the up-to-date press agent we think we sea lion elsewhere than in the river.”

This is probably the first story written about Jones in 100 years that did not mention that he wore a top hat and went everywhere with two wolfhounds. He was a colorful character, eccentric entrepreneur and shrewd showman, but he was not the first or only one to run a zoo near Minnehaha Park. The park board beat him to it by 13 years.

David C. Smith

© David C. Smith


13 comments so far

  1. Joe on

    I wonder what the real story was with the “escaped Sea Lion.”

    • David C. Smith on

      The notion of a sea lion doing a high dive over the falls has never made sense to me, but it was passed down as Longfellow Garden lore. I was pleased to find a skeptic in a newspaper of that period, but I have never made a serious attempt to research the event. A good project for someone.

  2. […] One of my favorite Minneapolis park stories is about the zoo in Minnehaha Park over 100 years ago. I’ve restored an old post about that zoo here. […]

  3. […]  There is a great blog about the history of the falls here.  It was once the location to a zoo!  I knew about the mill that once was a bit further away from the falls, because I had climbed […]

  4. Scott Vreeland on

    Speaking of animals in the parks… I vaguely remember someone saying that Wirth was fond of grey squirrels and brought them to the parks ( and city) Have you heard this story and is there any truth to this story?
    Scott Vreeland
    MPRB Commissioner

    • David C. Smith on

      You’re right, Scott. Wirth imported gray squirrels from Kansas in 1909 to put in Loring Park. Wirth didn’t like the resident red squirrels because he claimed they raided the nests of songbirds and ate the eggs. The gray squirrels were supposed to be less aggressive. Wirth hired boys to shoot the red squirrels in the park, making way for the grays. In 1917, Wirth wrote that the imported gray squirrels had spread from Loring Park throughout the city.

      I’ve tried to determine if Minneapolis was outside the range of gray squirrels at that time, but have not been able to find anything definitive. Does anybody know if gray squirrels were native to the area in the early 1900s? Could those Loring Park gray squirrels be the progenitors of the marauding hordes we live amongst these days?

      • Andrea Weber on

        I also reserached the grey squirrel story and it is true. There is a historic marker about them in Loring Park. I was not able to determine if they were native here at the time, but f they were they must have been uncommon. I read that Wirth also shipped in greys from Washington State in 1909.

  5. N.olesen on

    Yes, I agree with all the above comments in that I enjoy hearing about our beloved city Minneapolis and it’s history. I grew up near Lake Harriet and visited the falls often as a child. I brought my children there and now I go there as it is peaceful and brings back fond memories. I just recently viewed Lyndon B. Johnson’s footprints in the cement by the falls. I never saw them growing up and wonder how I missed them!
    Thank you for the history.

    • David C. Smith on

      Thanks for reading and your comments. Perhaps Andrea or someone else at MPRB can tell us when LBJ’s visit was commemorated by the footprints and photo. I believe the marker was put up within the last decade. I can tell by the high traffic on my blog today that Minnehaha is a much-loved park.

      • Karen Cooper on

        I don’t have the exact date for the LBJ marker on the north side of Minnehaha Falls, but I agree it was put up in the 21st century.

  6. Andrea Weber on

    Love this post, David!

    MPRB staff are again using some historic thems in the design of new playgrounds in Minnehaha Park (a survey is open through this weekend on the MPRB website!). We are planning an interpretive sign about the zoo near the North Plateau (WPA) playground. We know it is not the site of the zoo, but it is of interest to families and we will have some animal play features in the new playground!

    Have you done a post on the Wabun campground? That is the theme of the Wabun playground. Check out the design concept-it is pretty fun!

    • David C. Smith on

      Thanks for the info, Andrea. I’d encourage everyone to provide their input on the playground at I think the plans are wonderful. Incorporating history is marvelous, especially for kids.

      I haven’t written anything about the Auto Tourist Camp that once occupied the Wabun area, but have gathered a lot of info on it over the years and plan to write the story some fine (or blustery) day.

      I even received an e-mail a while back from someone who bought one of the old tourist cabins when the camp was closed in the 1950s and moved it to Mille Lac, where it still stands, much enlarged, as a cabin.

      • Andrea Weber on

        Very cool to hear about one of the cabins still out there. I bet many are around, but people may not know that is where they came from! We have a photo of the auctioning of the cabins and a survey drawing of the campground on the MPRB website with the playground info.

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