Town luring visitors with story of Jim the Wonder Dog

Monday, June 3, 2002

MARSHALL, Mo. -- Mary Hogge Burge is a soft-spoken woman of 70 who relates with sincerity and specifics her girlhood memories of a dog that seemed smarter than many humans.

When those memories start flowing, the listener could be forgiven for questioning Burge's first-person accounts of Jim the Wonder Dog -- or the incredible stories related by others who encountered the Llewellyn setter with the unusual eyes.

After all, who ever heard of a dog understanding instructions written in French, German and Spanish, much less a query tapped out in Morse code?

What canine was ever able to select winners of the Kentucky Derby, the World Series and presidential elections? Or, with science telling us dogs are colorblind, single out in a crowd a little girl wearing a red polka-dot dress?

"All I can say is that Jim was truly a dog with superintelligence, some kind of special gift," said Burge.

She was the girl in red polka dots. Her encounter happened on a Saturday morning during the Depression era, a period when Jim's fame spread wide through mentions in Reader's Digest, Ripley's Believe It or Not and Paramount newsreels.

Now Marshall is working to lure visitors with the family-friendly story of Jim the Wonder Dog.

"With all the stress in the world since Sept. 11, this is a sweet, simple, true story about the connection between man and dog," said Burge. "We still can't explain Jim's power, but we witnessed it and can share these stories."

Dog lover's paradise

A dedicated corps of volunteers staff the Saline County Historical Society's museum just off the courthouse square, displaying articles and selling souvenirs commemorating the Wonder Dog.

Next door to the museum is a peaceful park -- Jim the Wonder Dog Memorial Park -- with plaques relating the canine's remarkable accomplishments. The park is on the site of the old Ruff Hotel, which was owned by Jim's master, Sam Van Arsdale.

Patrons of the park purchased bricks to line its walkways, bricks carved with memorials to their own special pets, such as "FiFi," "Sir Gallihad," "Our Brittany Pepper," "Best Old Pals Buster and Lil Red."

It's a dog lover's paradise, and the museum volunteers say most visitors readily accept that there was something special about Jim, who lived from 1925 to 1937.

"If you talk to the visitors who have dogs, you soon realize that a close association with pets gives you a special bond. I believe this bond with Mr. Van Arsdale was what set Jim apart," says Mildred Conner, a Historical Society volunteer.

'Some occult power'

Skeptics abounded, and Mr. Sam, as pals knew the dog's master, was happy to put on demonstrations of Jim's ability. On several occasions, Mr. Sam told Jim to find a car on the courthouse square with specific out-of-state plates; the dog dutifully placed his paw on a car bumper from Nebraska or New Jersey.

There were higher-profile displays of Jim's gifts, such as a visit to the University of Missouri-Columbia.

As newsreel cameras rolled and hundreds of students watched, Jim responded to commands written in several languages. Witnesses said they couldn't detect any trickery or special signals.

A.J. Durant, respected head of the school's veterinary medicine department, was among the witnesses. His inspection of the dog found nothing unusual beyond a larger-than-normal head and startlingly expressive eyes. Human-like eyes, some said.

"I am convinced that Jim possessed some occult power that may never come again to a dog in many, many generations," Durant later wrote.

There were other generations, pups of Jim that were acceptable hunting dogs but nothing spectacular in intelligence or ability. Whatever set Jim apart apparently stopped with him. He is buried in Marshall's Ridge Park Cemetery, a grave that is visited so often there is a special path with a sign pointing the way.

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