DOVER, Ohio – In a different time and place, Ernest “Mooney” Warther might have composed like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, calculated like Albert Einstein or painted like Pablo Picasso.
Instead, Warther, born in 1885 in Dover to a poor immigrant family, expressed his genius at the end of a carving knife.
Warther’s carvings, which made him world-famous, are now displayed at the beautiful family-owned Ernest Warther Museum & Gardens in Tuscarawas County on the site of his workshop and home.
As a boy, Warther found a pocket knife lying on a path, which led to amazing things.
At age 14, he started work in the local steel mill and began offering suggestions for improvements right away, including steel boot-toe caps that he made for fellow workers, long before steel-toed boots were available on the market.
Although Warther’s formal education ended in the second grade, he had a head for calculations, especially when it came to carving. He first came to wide public attention when he created his famous “pliers tree,” a series of 511 interconnected, articulated pliers he carved from a single, foot-long block of wood using a series of more than 31,000 cuts. The plan, he said, came to him in a kind of vision.
But Warther apparently grew tired of feats of “whittling,” and he turned his attention to becoming a master carver, creating magnificent works of art using knives he made himself. His knife-making fame also grew, and he was able to leave the steel mill and start a cutlery business, later run by his children and grandchildren.
Photos can’t do justice to Warther’s works, which are amazingly intricate and created almost entirely by hand with no mechanical lathes, drills or other power tools, and all held together without any glue or other adhesive.
His favorite subjects were steam engines, and he created an entire series of elaborate carvings depicting engines from the simple experiments of ancient Greece up to the handsome and complicated locomotives of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Warther used actual blueprints of the locomotives to build his own scale models – piece by tiny piece – from walnut, ebony, ivory and other materials. His most elaborate construction was a 1933 Great Northern locomotive, which was made up of 7,752 meticulously carved parts.
Warther’s fame grew, and in 1923 the New York Central Railroad hired him to show off his creations in a special exhibit car. He toured with his carvings for six months, followed by a two-year stint overseeing his own exhibit at Grand Central Station in New York. But he turned down an offer, equivalent to nearly $750,000 in 2019 dollars, to sell the collection and become its permanent curator, instead returning with his carvings to Dover.
Warther, who died in 1973, refused to ever sell his carvings, most of which are still in Dover displayed in his museum. In addition, visitors will see his original workshop, family home, gardens and the “Button House” where his wife, Frieda, kept and displayed her collection of 73,000 buttons. Guided tours include videos about Warther’s fascinating history, with clips of Warther and others talking about his work and his genial can-do philosophy.
More information about the Ernest Warther Museum and Gardens is available at 330-505-6003 or online at thewarthermuseum.com.
Steve Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.