Another Wonder from Howell County

I’ve heard about him for the greater portion of my life. My mother’s family was from Marshall, Missouri, where he was a legend. His gravesite draws the most visitors of any in Ridge Park Cemetery, for that matter, any cemetery in Saline County, the resting place of many famous Missourians. His burial within the confines of that cemetery was barred, despite the fact that before his death in 1937, he was known nationally. What many do not know is he spent his early years hunting the hills and hollows of Howell County. 
 
Jim the Wonder Dog was born in the state of Louisiana on March 10, 1925. We know his birthday because Jim was a registered Llewellyn setter from a champion bird-hunting line, a lineage known for its exceptional hunting abilities and intelligence. However, Jim was the runt of the seven litter, and his breeder seriously considered putting him down. Instead, as a joke, he gave the pup to his friend Sam Van Arsdale, an avid sportsman who had purchased dogs from him before. 
 
Van Arsdale and family had just moved to West Plains in 1924, having leased and later purchased the Arcade Hotel from F.Z. Kinkaid, who had been running it for the past five years. Built in 1901, the Arcade was the old, established hotel just off the square, and the Van Arsdales remodeled and upgraded the forty-five-room business successfully. The Van Arsdales had extensive experience in the hotel, having recently been in charge of six “well-known” hotels. They cited that the reason for coming to West Plains was the natural beauty of the area. In February 1925, a grand opening of the newly remodeled hotel was held. 
 
Jim’s debut in Van Arsdales’ kennels was unpromising. He was a pudgy, awkward, and seemingly lazy animal, preferring to sit and watch Sam train the other dogs. When he was old enough to tag along, Sam took Jim bird hunting, and when he hit the ground, Jim took off in a beeline for a covey, pointed, held until Sam shot a bird, then retrieved it, returning it to him like a pro. Then, Sam knew he had something special. He had no idea how special.
 
Jim was an exceptional hunting dog now in the hands of an exceptional hunter. Quail were plentiful in the Ozarks, and Sam kept notes of his dog’s performance. He personally counted five thousand birds shot over Jim before he quit. Outdoor Life magazine named Jim “Hunting Dog of the Century.”
 
Sam received local notoriety in the “First Annual Fishing Contest,” sponsored by the Davis-Ross Hardware Company. The Quill reported on October 7, 1926, that “S.H. Van Arsdale of Hotel Arcade captured first prize, a $12.50 Shakespeare Marhoff level winding reel. The prizes were offered for the largest fish caught in local streams, and Mr. Van Arsdale, who is one of the most ardent sportsmen of Wet Plains, captured first prize with a 4-pound and 13-ounce bass caught in Warm Fork near Thayer.”
 
Following their hotel enterprises, the Van Arsdales bought another hotel, left Howell County, and moved to Sedalia in 1928. Jim was three years old, and he and Sam continued their hunting partnership. Not long after arrival in their new home, while hunting on a hot hillside, Sam suggested that he and his dog sit and rest at the foot of a hickory tree. To his amazement, Jim walked to the nearest one and sat down, though other species surrounded it. Sam then asked Jim to go to an oak, then a cedar, and when he ran out of trees, to go to a stump or a can. There had been no training on tree species, but the dog intuitively knew and picked out items or people hidden in a crowd. Once in Warsaw, Missouri, Jim was asked to find a Bible in a large group of people. He immediately walked to a Methodist minister who did not know Sam, and could not understand why his dog was nudging him. The question had been asked in French, so only the questioner understood what was happening and told the onlookers, “I asked him to find a Bible.” With a grin, the minister reached into his coat pocket and produced a New Testament. It was learned that Jim could also understand Greek, German, Spanish, or any other language thrown at him. His uncanny abilities included predicting the gender of babies before birth, and the future, such as predicting the winner of the Kentucky Derby seven years in a row, the winner of the World Series in 1936, and the winner of the 1936 presidential race. 
 
Appearing before a joint session of the Missouri Legislature, Jim picked out people and items on request and responded to instructions in Morse code and shorthand.
 
As Jim’s notoriety grew, Sam Van Arsdale refused to exploit the dog for money. Though the Depression was ever-present, he turned down a half-million-dollar contract to use his dog in motion pictures for a year. He was more interested in finding out why Jim was so exceptional. After demonstrations and testing by the University of Missouri College of Agriculture and School of Veterinary Science, the professors were convinced of an unknown power that allowed Jim to do these things. 
 
On March 18, 1937, Sam Van Arsdale took Jim on a fishing trip on the Lake of the Ozarks. When they arrived, Jim bounded out of the car but collapsed after running a short distance. Jim was taken to a veterinary hospital in Sedalia but died moments after arriving.
 
Jim the Wonder Dog was buried outside the gate of Ridge Park Cemetery in Marshall because the sexton declared pets were not allowed. In the years since Jim’s death, the cemetery has grown around him, and Jim now rests within its boundaries. A Jim the Wonder Dog Memorial Garden, featuring a bronze statue of Jim, was built off the square in Marshall.
 
In 2017 Jim the Wonder Dog was declared state dog by the Missouri Secretary of State. So, add Jim to your list of celebrities who got their start in Howell County. 
 
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