Do your workmates rib you for packing the same thing for lunch, day after day?
That’s what happened to a Dover Steel Mill worker who relished tucking into some Swiss cheese and a piece of rhubarb pie for his daily noontime repast. His colleague, Ernest “Mooney” Warther, immortalized him eating his favorite lunch as one of several carved figures that were part of a miniature model of the mill that Warther created in his off-hours. Powered by one sewing machine motor, the model relies on a series of belts and pulleys to control the movement and speed of each figure.
This little guy is one of the many fascinating creations you can spy during a visit to the Warther Museum in Dover, Ohio.
Warther was born on October 30, 1885 in Dover to Swiss immigrants. In keeping with Swiss tradition, the young boy herded his neighbors’ cows to pasture each day, earning some extra money for his widowed mother. While walking down the road with the cows one day, he stubbed his toe against an old pocketknife, took it home, and became fascinated with whittling wood.
The boy diligently practiced his new skill. One day, he watched a hobo slice and split a small chunk of wood into a pair of miniature pliers, and was inspired to create his own. After much practice using pieces of wood from old buckets, he mastered the trick, fashioning multiplying pairs of interconnected pliers.
He created his masterpiece in 1913 — a tree with 511 tiny pairs of pliers carved from one block of walnut. It was even displayed at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
The slight teenager with a second-grade education worked as a shearman in the Dover Steel Mills, but he found his calling when he crafted his first kitchen knife for his mother in 1902. Her friends and neighbors were so impressed that they asked him to create knives for them.
By 1923, Mooney had quit working in the steel mill in favor of making kitchen knives for his livelihood. Using carbon tool steel, he hand-ground the knife nine times, polished it to a lustrous finish, gave the blade a tooled design that has become a Warther trademark, and riveted a layered birch handle onto the blade for stability and balance. He developed his own ways to temper a steel blade that would stay sharp even while carving hard substances like walnut and bone, and to create a handle that was easy to grip.
Handcrafted kitchen cutlery might have been Mooney’s vocation, but woodcarving was his passion. Using his own invention, a woodcarving knife with interchangeable blades, he carved in the early morning before he went to work.
When he wasn’t making knives or carving, Warther read extensively about many subjects. Items from his desk and books from his personal library are displayed in the museum.
He was especially fond of reading about Abraham Lincoln. He carved tributes to Lincoln, including a wall plaque with the words of Lincoln’s favorite poem, “Oh, Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Be Proud?,” and a walnut cane with a bust of Lincoln at the top and a cage with a wooden ball carved inside.
One of Warther’s most-loved creations is a model of the train that carried the assassinated president from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, complete with a carved figure of Lincoln in his casket. For that very special model car, Warther used hippopotamus tusk.
Steam locomotives were big in Warther’s day, and carving mechanized miniatures of those marvels of engineering became his pursuit. Using walnut, ebony, ivory and abalone, he carved models that illustrated the evolution of the steam engine in small sections, then pieced them together.
In 1915, he started keeping a diary in which he recorded how much time he spent carving each of his models and the number of parts they had. Each wheel consisted of 54 parts, all cut in ivory and ebony, and bearings allowed the wheels to rotate. Some models were composed of as many as 6,000 tiny, intricate parts, many of which were held together with straight pins before Warther started gluing the pieces together instead.
Several of his creations capture the complete history of steam locomotion, dating as far back as 250 BC with Hero’s Engine in Alexandria, Egypt. All are extraordinarily detailed and magnificently executed.
One model commemorates the driving of the golden spike that joined the rails of the First Transcontinental Railroad across the United States, connecting the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads on May 10, 1869 at Promontory, Utah. The figures move, just like those in Warther’s model of the Dover Steel Mill. The gold for the spike was provided by a dentist; it began life as material for filling a tooth.
In 1923, the New York Central Railroad created a demonstration train to publicize American railroads to the public. Warther was invited to carve on the train, called the Service Progress Special. From June 1923 through the spring of 1926, he spent five months a year traveling with the train through Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania and New York. For the remainder of the time, his carved locomotives were displayed in New York’s Grand Central Station; he appeared with them for a few days every month to promote them. One display case in the museum recreates the interior of a car on the train.
Other items on display in the museum include archival film footage of Warther at work, printed ephemera documenting Warther’s fame, dominoes and doll furniture that Warther created for his children, and postcards that he carved and mailed to his friends.
Warther’s life work is showcased in a museum on the secluded grounds of the home that he built with his wife, Frieda, whom he married in 1910. The couple bought an acre of land parallel to the railroad tracks on the outskirts of Dover, including the “calico ditch” where a stream that had powered a flour mill had once flowed, so named in 1842 when the man who built it went bankrupt and had to pay for it with bolts of calico from his dry goods store.
Its elevated situation provides a picturesque view of the Tuscarawas valley. Terraced walls descend into a natural playground, once furnished with an incredible swing, and a playhouse known as “The Cave.”
The lower section of the Warthers’ property includes a restored Baltimore & Ohio caboose, a restored Dover telegraph office, and a narrow gauge yard engine.
On Sunday afternoons, the Warthers and their five children took long walks, scouring the ground for arrowheads left behind by Indian tribes who had once inhabited the land. Sometimes, he invited neighborhood children to come along, planting some arrowheads in the fields so that each child could find one. Warther amassed over 5,000 arrowheads during his lifetime, displaying his most valuable, prized arrowheads under glass on a table in his living room.
He also mounted many of his arrowhead finds in different designs that covered the ceiling and walls of his workshop behind the two-story, red brick home that he and Frieda built in 1912. Here, Warther carved his models and made his knives. It’s a cozy, tidy little place, outfitted with decorative ironwork and a heart-shaped padlock on the exterior door, a fireplace, a workbench outfitted with tools, and plenty of small drawers to keep things organized.
A balcony on the side of the workshop affords not only a lovely view of the property, but also the opportunity to read a short poem that Mooney carved into the railing: “It was a summer evening and Mooney’s work was done/And on the old shop bench was sitting in the sun.”
Warther wasn’t the only creative hobbyist in the family. Frieda designed gardens with traditional Swiss-raised beds, still maintained by the Warthers today, using her specifications.
Frieda was also an avid collector of buttons, beginning when she was 10 and amassing over 100,000 during her lifetime. Sitting at her dining room table, surrounded by an abundance of Victorian charm strings, she used a wooden compass that her husband made her and assembled over 73,000 buttons in unique designs on boards. She often used her compass so vigorously in pursuing her hobby that she left holes in the table.
She either recreated well-known quilt patterns or developed her own unique designs, then placed them on the walls and ceilings of a garden shed behind their home. My clever traveling companion noted that you could play a mean game of “I Spy” here, so we did, as we spotted exquisite examples of hand-painted ceramic buttons, Goodyear rubber buttons, pearl buttons, brass military buttons, celluloid buttons, calico buttons, horse bridle buttons, photograph buttons and even a button from Mary Lincoln’s inaugural dress.
Warther died on June 8, 1973, but his family continues to honor his legacy with the Warther Museum, which is open seven days a week. Tours of the original Warther home, the button house and the Swiss-style gardens are self-guided; one-hour guided tours of the museum and the original Warther workshop are offered continuously throughout the day. The guided tour also includes a glimpse of Warther Cutlery, the handcrafted knife-making business that is now run by the third and fourth generations of the Warther family. “Old Faithful,” Warther’s popular design for a paring knife, is still a best-seller.
Still more Dover-based Warther family members own and operate Warther Woodworking, which makes unique wooden items, including its signature lathe-turned wooden music box bell and commissioned items like the Dover Public Library staff’s name badges.
If you visit the Warther Museum, take its social media challenge and share your experience by posting three of five challenges at www.facebook.com/warthersOH or @. See the challenges I posted on June 7, 2016 on my @Bee_A_Librarian Twitter page.
To read more about Ernest “Mooney” Warther, see The Little Boy Who Found a Knife: The Story of Ernest Warther, Master Carver, by Caroline J. Pardee; Mooney: The Life of the World’s Master Carver, by John P. Hayes; “The Master Carver of Dover: Mooney Warther and the History of Steam,” an article by John Vacha in the October-December 2006 issue of TIMELINE; and his entry in Ohio Builds a Nation: A Memorial to the Pioneers and the Celebrated Sons of the “Buckeye” State, by Samuel Harden Stille.