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Opinion: How a ‘smart dog’ made Marshall’s town slogan

Eyes & Ears

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Turns out, there really are nice folks in Marshall.

The small Missouri town’s slogan is “Smart dog, nice folks.”

The dog is true, too. That’s where the real story is found.

I learned this from a reader who responded to my January column, “Everywhere does not need to be like Springfield.” In it, I explored a city’s identity and the slogans we create to express that sentiment to others. I considered Marshall’s to be among those in Missouri as less than effective.

Here’s where it gets interesting. There really was a “smart dog” – at least according to local legend that this reader tipped me off to.

There is a statue of the dog in the town to prove it. It’s labeled “Jim the Wonder Dog, 1925-1937.” It’s beautiful and definitely piques the curiosity.

There also is a website established – JimTheWonderDog.org – with an old picture of the dog and a museum in the Llewellyn setter’s honor. And it all appears to be supported by the Friends of Jim the Wonder Dog organization.

The website tells the story of Jim, and here’s the wonder: The dog predicted the future. And it was said to understand multiple languages.

This wonder about Jim began to show when his owner, Sam Van Arsdale, suggested while out hunting they go rest a bit under a nearby hickory tree. Jim found the hickory standing among multiple varieties in the woods.

The story goes on to say Van Arsdale began testing Jim with verbal commands to go to a walnut tree, then a cedar, a stump and a tin can. The dog obeyed each quickly and perfectly.

It gets better. Jim the dog continued to showcase his skill by locating cars by specific makes, colors and license plate numbers and states.

“From a crowd, he could select the ‘man who sells hardware,’ and the one who ‘takes care of sick people’ or the ‘visitor from Kansas City,’” the story goes on. “He carried out instructions given to him in any foreign language, shorthand or Morse code.”

According to Jim’s story written by Evelyn Counts, the dog went on to predict the winners of seven Kentucky Derby races, a World Series and the sex of unborn babies. What couldn’t this dog do?

It was enough for Jim to make appearances before the Missouri Legislature and at the state fair in Sedalia. Jim’s infamy spans an entry in “Chicken Soup for the Cat & Dog Lover’s Soul” to a 1990 article in The Washington Post.

I found one firsthand reporting of the phenomenon of Jim. Published in 1979 in Rural Missouri, writer Henry Ferguson detailed his experience as a youngster when Jim and Van Arsdale made an appearance in Warsaw, Ferguson’s hometown. Ferguson recounted similar occurrences as those mentioned above. He called it “a remarkable and completely puzzling exhibition of the dog’s extraordinary cleverness.” In particular, he cited someone in the crowd that day who spoke a few words in French. The dog responded by slipping his way through the crowd to begin nudging a spectator. Ferguson said he recognized the man as the town’s Methodist minister. When Van Arsdale asked the French speaker what was said, the questioner replied, “I asked if there was a Bible in the crowd.” The pastor then pulled out a small Testament from his jacket, according to Ferguson’s article.

It goes on to note the skeptics got their say, too. Jim was tested by a couple veterinary and agriculture professors from the University of Missouri. Their verdict, according to Ferguson: “Jim possessed an occult power that might never come again to a dog in many generations.”

So there you have it – a curious town slogan rooted in mystery and legend.

I’m not writing to call phooey on these accounts, though I will say human emotions and experiences tend to lead us to believe the realities we want.

I think this slogan works for this town. Interestingly, the Missouri General Assembly helped the cause last year, passing Senate Bill 376 to recognize Jim as Missouri’s Wonder Dog.

The downside to the slogan is that it’s insider knowledge. It’s super clever and interesting, but the meaning doesn’t carry very far.

Then again, Marshall in central Missouri probably isn’t using its slogan to attract gobs of tourists or new residents. In that regard, it’s a fine slogan.

Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson can be reached at eolson@sbj.net.

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