I love art but have little time for the crafts. Crafts being, by my definition, anything involving artificial flowers, wicker, jewelry made out of strings and beads, and homemade dolls. Carving, on the other hand, teeters between art and craft depending on the one doing it. There is, for example, some fellow in the area in which I live who makes these god-awful chainsaw sculptures that he would have to pay me large sums of money to put in front of my house. His sort of carving falls firmly into the category of the crafts. It was therefore with some trepidation that I decided to visit the Warther Museum, in Dover, Ohio, which I knew was mainly the work of some carver I’d never heard of whose wife collected buttons. I needn’t have worried. The museum houses works of art, not crafts. It mainly showcases the carvings of Ernest “Mooney” Warther, a genius on par with Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, and Benjamin Franklin.
Born in 1883 or 1885 (sources differ) in Dover, Ohio, he was the son of Swiss parents. “Mooney” was his nickname and what most people called him. At the age of five while working as a cowherd, he came across a discarded pocket knife with which he started to whittle. In his early days he made novelty items such as working pairs of pliers carved out of a single unshaved stick of wood. One day he had a sudden inspiration: from one block of wood he would carve hundreds of interconnecting pliers. 30,000 cuts later he had 511 pairs and not a single shaving. When expanded together, they looked like a tree. No one has ever replicated this masterpiece and possibly no one ever can. Mooney had a second grade education and created this by envisioning it, not by planning it out as some elaborate geometric math problem. A photo of it even appeared in a high school math book.
On October 29, 1910, he married Freida Richard. The two had three daughters and two sons, who in turn produced twenty-three grandchildren, the latter begetting nine great-grandchildren at the time of Mooney’s death on June 8, 1973. Despite committing so much time either working or carving, Mooney, whose father died when he was a toddler, spent much time with both his and the neighborhood children. Once, for example, he built a giant sandbox for them. Though talented in many areas, he wasn’t good at everything. According to one museum information sign, he was “a downright terrible driver. After driving the family car in the ditch, with Frieda inside, Mooney was no longer permitted to drive with her” in the vehicle.
On December, 1, 1913, Mooney, inspired in part by a train passing his workshop each day, decided to carve the history of steam power. Most of what he produced would be historically significant steam locomotives. He acquired blueprints, photos, and other references and proceeded to carve each piece of a given item at a reduced scale in his little shack of a workshop. Unlike a traditional carving that shows the outside of an object while remaining just solid within, Mooney carved each individual piece of an object, then assembled the whole. His locomotives worked, some of which he animated with an electric motor. Railroad engineers would marvel at the accuracy of his locomotives and only once did one find that Mooney had missed a piece, a wire that went from the cab to the headlamp. This he quickly fixed.
The models were often made out of locally found black walnut, old billiard balls, and even a cow’s thigh, and sometimes pieces of metal that served as axels. For moving parts, Mooney used Arguto wood, which, according to the Woodex Bearing Company’s website, is “rock maple impregnated with petrolatum wax.” The museum tour made much of the fact that some of the trains have been running since their creation without wearing out or needing new lubrication. Arguto wood is the secret to that success.
Warther started his history of steam power with a design by Sir Isaac Newton that was never built in its time, then moved on to an engine made by Englishman Willard Murdock. The closer to his own time he got, the more complicated Mooney’s carvings became. He managed all this while laboring eight hours a day at the local American Sheet & Tin Can plant, a dangerous line of work not for the feint of heart and one that didn’t pay all that well. Dedicated to his hobby, Mooney told the Plain Dealer each day he got up at three in the