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Missouri Is Chock Full Of Folklore. Roadside Markers Will Honor Some Of Its Legends

William G. Pomeroy Foundation
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of the most famous of the new Legends & Lore roadside signs that have been erected to date.

Jim the Wonder Dog has staked his claim to Missouri folklore. The Llewelyn setter, who lived in the 1930s, was said to understand and carry out specific instructions in a variety of languages.

Jim’s story is so lauded that he has a museum and memorial garden—but his is only one legend of possibly thousands in the state.

The Folk Arts Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia has joined the Pomeroy Foundation’s Legends & Lore Marker Grant Program, which will literally put more stories like Jim’s on the map.

“We’re trying to encourage people to think about what’s local and if they can get some community buy-in about something they’d like to celebrate or commemorate in some way,” says Missouri Folk Arts Program director Lisa Higgins.

Ten other states have already begun erecting signs in spots that mark their favorite stories; Missouri joined in the spring, but the pandemic overshadowed the first application period. The current application deadline is October 2.

Heather Rhodes Johnson
Kansas city storyteller and educator Angela J. Williams (center) shares a ghost story from her hometown of Hannibal, Mo. with an audience at the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site in St. Louis.

The Pomeroy Foundation is a private grant-making foundation based in Syracuse, N.Y. It has coordinated New York's historic roadside markers program since 2006. Around 2016, staff began noticing more unusual applications.

“Applications that weren’t based in historical fact but were important stories for the community, which generated the idea to have a folklore-related roadside marker program,” says Deryn Pomeroy, director of strategic initiatives.

The grants for signs are handed out to municipalities, non-profits, colleges, universities and other groups. An individual with an idea must partner with one of those entities. The Missouri Folk Arts Program will vet applications on behalf of the foundation.

Before granting a marker, funders need to know “that the location of the marker makes sense, that this isn’t just someone that is applying for a marker to put in front of their bed and breakfast for a ghost story they made up,” Pomeroy says.

Higgins says Missouri is packed with rich folk tradition in many forms, like Kansas City jazz, St. Louis blues, and Ozark, Little Dixie, and Missouri River Valley fiddle music; pockets of German communities in places like Perry County and French communities like one near Potosi. It also boasts ghost stories and monster legends like the Momo, the Blue Man, as well as many tantalizing murder tales.

Existing markers in other states commemorate nationally known stories like Ichabod Crane and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow in New York, and the story of African-American folk hero John Henry in West Virginia.

But among Pomeroy’s favorites so far are lesser known pieces of history like the Alderson lion, also in West Virginia.

William G. Pomeroy Foundation
One of Deryn Pomeroy's favorites in West Virginia commemorates the tale of the town lion.

She says that in the late 1800s, a traveling circus passed through the tiny town of Alderson and left a lion behind. The animal was tame and the town adopted it and allowed it to roam freely. That curiosity ended when a travelling salesman was so terrified to see a loose lion that he ran away and jumped in a river.

“After that,” Pomeroy says, “the town passed legislation that all lions must be leashed in their town.”

Higgins says she looks forward to the signs that will be erected in Missouri, most likely in early 2021, in time for the state’s bicentennial. She says this kind of exploration “gets you out of the house and off the main roads into some really beautiful parts of the state to kind of visit and learn more about another aspect of our history and culture.”

Pomeroy, who’s already seen the markers in action, says that they “help people learn about stories in their own backyard that they might not have known were there all the time. [The signs are] enriching and instill pride of place in the community.”

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.
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