Minnehaha Falls is probably the loveliest park in the State and also the one most wrapped in fantasy. The 1855 epic poem of Longfellow, The Song of Hiawatha, has no basis in Objibwe history, but rather is based on the Finnish saga Kalevala.
Longfellow passed it off as Native American mythology. Even though critics objected to the plagiarism, the popularity of the poem outlasted the criticism and even today it remains a thrilling and passionate story.
One of the most ardent fans of Longfellow was Robert “Fish” Jones, a man who had built a fortune selling fish on 3rd Street and Hennepin beginning in 1876. He must have been a wonderful character-walking down Hennepin Avenue in a silk top hat leading two Russian wolfhounds. He kept a menagerie above his fish house, and the Minneapolis Tribune reported in 1903 he had imported six lions, jaguars, leopards, bears, camels and a herd of sacred cattle from the Holy Land. He kept most of his menagerie on the third floor of his building, but the bear was staked out in front of the store to amaze pedestrians.
In 1886 he sold the fish market and moved his animals to his three-acre farm on what is now the site of the Basilica of St. Mary. He named his pet lion Hiawatha. Eventually, the neighbors complained so he had an architect build him a house that was two-thirds the replica of Longfellow’s home in Cambridge, Mass., on the banks of what he called Minnehaha Creek.
In 1885 the State of Minnesota purchased the land around the Falls for a park. It was the second State Park in the nation after one in New York.
They gave it to the City of Minneapolis, and, as a testament to Longfellow’s popularity and Fish’s insistence, the creek and falls were named after the tragic heroine, Minnehaha, and lakes were named after Hiawatha and his mother, okomis. Fish lived next door to the Park with his menagerie. His Longfellow Gardens became a free public zoo and an immensely popular destination until his death in 1930. He donated the lands and the Longfellow home to the City.
The Gardens and zoo finally closed in 1934. The house was donated to the library system and was quite popular until the late 1960s. I remember the last remnant of that wildlife in the late 1940s and early 1950s when there were pony rides at the site. For a nickel you could ride a Shetland pony around a circle and pretend you were a cowboy. Today, most of that history has been paved over by the Highway 55 re-route. But the re-route uncovered another history with a more plausible and even more compelling mythology. At first the re-route wanted to pave over Cold Spring, the first spring that settlers and Native Americans used in the bluff area south of Minnehaha Falls. Native Americans insisted that the spring was sacred to their culture, and young anarchists defied the bulldozers by sitting for months in trees around the site. The County and the State finally agreed to move the re-route around the spring and not destroy its fragile ecology.
Today, the Park seems tame. Hiawatha, Fish’s pet lion, is no longer roaming
the grounds. There are no pony rides. But it’s still a popular destination for people who want a break from city life and a chance to marvel at the wonder of the falls. There will be concerts there this summer, a Shakespeare play and on the last Sunday in June (as it has every year since 1934) there will be Svenskarnas Dag, a day for all Swedes and near-Swedes to celebrate their heritage.