Think of the best dog you’ve ever owned or hunted over and then multiply its accomplishments by a few thousand. Then throw in a few cups of Barnum and Bailey, a dash of whimsy and a sprinkling of the unbelievable, and you’ll have the story of Jim the Wonder Dog.
Jim, a Llewellin English setter, was born in 1925 and died in March 1937—75 years ago this month. During his life, Jim became undoubtedly the most famous dog in America, and it remains the best-known inhabitant—human or animal—to have ever lived in the western Missouri town of Marshall. To that end, Jim is the only nonhuman interred in Marshall’s Ridge Park Cemetery.
After a friend and Louisiana dog breeder gifted Jim to Marshall hotelier and avid hunter Sam Van Arsdale as a joke in 1925 because “it was the ugliest dog he could find,” the setter soon began to show prowess in the field. From the first days afield, Van Arsdale found Jim to be an exceptional hunter, “knowing” where the quail were, and refusing to hunt where there were no birds. Traveling across the country on hunts, Van Arsdale said he stopped counting the birds he shot over Jim after 5,000.
But hunting was only a small part of Jim’s amazing talent, as Van Arsdale discovered quite by accident, as legend has it. One hot day while the two were hunting, Van Arsdale suggested aloud that they “go rest a bit under that hickory tree.” Although in a woods with dozens of tree species, Jim headed straight to the hickory. Surprised, Van Arsdale told Jim to go to a walnut, then a cedar, a stump, and a tin can—which he did directly and perfectly.
The book “Jim the Wonder Dog,” and local newspaper accounts document some of the public displays of the setter’s amazing talents. It is said Jim could locate a car by make, color, license number and state of origin. From a crowd, Jim could identify the “man who sells hardware,” and the one who “takes care of sick people,” or the “visitor from Kansas City.”
Further, Jim reportedly predicted the winner of seven consecutive Kentucky Derbies, a Yankee victory in the 1936 World Series and demonstrated a comprehension of multiple languages, shorthand and Morse Code before a special joint session of the Missouri State Legislature.
In the late 1990s, the nonprofit Friends of Jim the Wonder Dog constructed a memorial garden on the site of Van Arsdale’s hotel, including a life-size statue of the famous Llewellin, and Marshall’s favorite, uh, son.
On February 29, Rep. Joe Aull, D-Marshall, introduced House Bill 1863 to designate Jim the Wonder Dog as the official State Historical Dog. If passed, the country’s most enshrined bird dog would be the first to receive such a lofty designation. We wouldn’t be surprised if old Jim predicted it would happen.