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Jim the Wonder Dog wins over cat lover

Polly Letofsky
Special to the Daily Jim and his owner, Samuel VanArsalde. Jim was trained to hunt, but revealed he could do much more than just flush quail.
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Editor’s note: Vail resident Polly Letofsky has been on the road since she left town Aug. 1, 1999, on her mission to become the first woman to walk around the world and promote awareness of breast cancer. From Vail she first walked to the West Coast, then crossed to the two islands of New Zealand, up the eastern coast of Australia and on to Malaysia and Southeast Asia, India, Turkey, Greece, Great Britain and Ireland. She’s now back in the United States, having arrived in New York City and crossed New York State to the Canadian Border at Niagara Falls and made her way to her home state of Minnesota. She’s still catching up on some of her journals from the summer. She is expected to reach Vail at the end of July. You can follow along with Polly’s journey on her Web site, http://www.globalwalk.org.

MARSHALL, Mo. – I’d rather have toothpicks jammed under my fingernails then go see anything commemorating a dog.



Well, I thought that, anyway.

After speaking and fund-raising for the afternoon with the Marshall Lions Club, a woman named Shirley asked if I’d done any sightseeing. She says before you leave town you really must see the Jim the Wonder Dog Park.



It took an enormous amount of restraint to keep my eyes from rolling to the back of my head. After all, I’d just been chased and yapped at, my backside nearly chewed to bits by dogs all across Missouri.

I politely declined saying that maybe next time I come through Marshall, Missouri, I’d go see Jim the Wonder Dog Park. Then I turned around and rolled my eyes clear to Kingdom Come.

But kicking and screaming, I was dragged out by Shirley. And now let me just say that if you’re ever in Marshall, Missouri, you simply must absolutely go see Jim the Wonder Dog Park.



Over-nite sensation

Jim was born in 1925, a regular ol’ English Llewellyn Setter pup. By nature he was supposed to be a quail hunting dog like all his brothers and sisters but was deemed so lazy that his new owner, Sam, thought he had gotten a dud and toyed with the idea of selling him.

Then one day heading back to the car after a long day of hunting quail, Sam says to Jim, “I’m a little tired, let’s find a hickory tree and sit down for a rest.”

No sooner had the words gotten out when Jim ran past all the other trees in the forest and sat down under a hickory tree to wait for Sam.

“Well, aren’t you clever?” Sam said. “You think you’re so smart, go find me a black oak.” To Sam’s surprise, Jim bolted right over to the nearest black oak and put his paw up on the trunk.

Now Sam sat up straight. “You’re right! Can you find me a walnut tree?!”

Eagerly, Jim bounced through the trees in the forest and put his paw on the trunk of a walnut tree.

Sam was dumbfounded and suddenly wasn’t so tired from his quail hunting. He fired directions at Jim with a rushed sound of excitement in his voice. How about a stump? A cedar tree? A hazel bush? A tin can?

Jim found them all and Sam became so excited he whooped out a feisty, “Holy bajeezuz!” and couldn’t get home fast enough to tell his wife how special their “lazy” dog was.

They lived in The Ruff Hotel here in Marshall, which used to sit where the garden and statue are now. Sam started telling his friends about these rare abilities that his dog had but naturally they thought he belonged in the loony bin.

So Sam called Jim over and said, “Jim, go outside and find Mr. Simpson’s car.” Jim ran out the door and down the block and put his paw on the front bumper of Mr. Simpson’s car.

Hmmm, they said, curious but not entirely convinced. Let’s try something else. One friend suggested that if Jim were so smart maybe he could read license plates. He then wrote his license plate number on a piece of paper and put it down on the sidewalk.

“Jim,” instructed Sam, “I want you to go find the car that has this license plate.” Sam barely had the words out of his mouth when Jim galloped around the corner and put his paw on the car with the proper license plate.

That did it. Jim was an instant marvel and word spread.

Shorthand for socks

Sam and Jim were happy to put on displays for anyone who stopped by The Ruff Hotel.

One day a business group from Wichita was ambling through town and came by for some proof of the wonder dog they’d heard about.

The president of the company, who had grumbled about coming so far out of their way, wrote on a piece of paper and showed it to Jim. “Mr. Gray is in the crowd. Will you pick him out?”

There were 15 people in the group and Jim went directly to Mr. Gray.

Skepticism was shot straight away and they all stood in The Ruff Hotel peppering Jim with orders. “Find the man who owns a Ford.” “Find the man with the c-a-n-e.” “Find the man who lost an arm.”

No one could ever explain the abilities that Jim had. A number of veterinarians, even scientists, examined him over the years. Sam insisted that he’d never trained Jim to do anything but hunt quail. And, anyway, it was proven time and time again that Sam never gave Jim any signals. He simply seemed to exhibit a sense beyond human comprehension.

One other very unusual thing about Jim was his human-looking eyes. And while it’s generally understood that dogs are color blind, Jim startled everyone with this ability to detect color. He could point out the man with the blue tie or the red hair or the brown suit.

He even wowed crowds by knowing things about their personal lives: “Pick out the woman who has just had twins.” And “If I wanted to send a telegram, who would I go to to send it?” and Jim would bound over to the Western Union messenger.

One day a woman wrote something in shorthand on a piece of paper and put it down on the ground in front of Jim so he could read it. Immediately Jim walked over to a man and sat down next to him. The woman cried, “He’s done it! He knows shorthand!” She explained that she had written, “Show us the man with the rolled socks.”

College exams

Jim’s popularity grew and, of course, the dog became quite an attraction at The Ruff Hotel. Travelers and businessmen from around the country were driving far out of their way to stop and see him perform.

Jim was featured in Ripley’s, Readers Digest, Outdoor Life and many newspapers and magazines around the country. He visited high schools, universities, county fairs and, by invitation, performed before a joint session of the Missouri Legislature.

The University of Kansas invited Sam and Jim to campus where students could see Jim’s abilities for themselves. A professor, thinking that this wonder dog was quite the trickster, asked Jim to find an elm tree – in Italian.

Another asked in French to point out a license number. Another, speaking in German, wanted Jim to show them a girl dressed in blue. Even in Spanish Jim followed through with a request to find a man with a mustache.

In a Greek class the professor wrote something and put it on the floor. Jim looked at the piece of paper but didn’t do anything. Sam urged him, “Go ahead, Jim, do what it says on the piece of paper.” But Jim didn’t move. He just looked straight at Sam and shook his head.

Finally Sam picked up the paper and handed it to a class member: “Jim won’t do this one.” The student read the paper and smiled. She said, “That’s because it doesn’t say anything. It’s just the Greek alphabet.” Everyone in the room chuckled.

“Jim,” Sam said, “seems there’s someone here who thinks he’s quite smart. Will you show us who he is?”

Jim went straight over to the professor and gave him a snarl. The class roared with laughter.

Wonder of the world

You can imagine there were more than a fair share of doubting Thomases. But there were others who believed that Jim had a mystifying gift that went well beyond the power of what anyone could’ve trained him to do.

Some called it super-intelligence, others called it psychic power, but the fact that he was also able to predict the outcome of future events convinced some that he possessed occult power.

He chose winners of baseball games, dog races and presidential elections. And for seven years straight Jim picked the winners – win, place and show – of the Kentucky Derby.

You better believe Sam got an endless stream of financial offers to split the stakes straight down the middle in exchange for the names of the winning horses. But Sam said no every time. He was very careful not to allow gamblers – or even himself – to reap profit off Jim. I

nstead, each year he put Jim’s predictions in an envelope and locked them up in the safe at The Ruff Hotel. Only after the race would Sam open it.

Jim the Wonder Dog died in 1937 at the age of 12. He was the only animal ever allowed to be buried in the Marshall Family Cemetery. The local caretakers say even today his eternal resting place is one of the most visited graves in the area and is always full of flowers.

On the way out of the garden, I thumbed through the guest book. It’s packed with signatures by people from El Salvador, New York, Puerto Rico, even England, who have come to see the monument and garden of Jim the Wonder Dog.

I signed the guest book: “First time in 13,200-miles I’ve discovered a nice dog. Jim is almost enough to turn around a cat person.”


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