Warther Museum & Gardens

Admission to the Ernest Warther Museum and Gardens in Dover, Ohio, is approx. $20/person (less for students and seniors).

  • Open: March through December. Guided tours are offered Thursday – Saturday, at 10am, 12 pm, and 2pm. Self-guided tours are available most days from 9am – 4:30pm.
  • Location: (Map It) 331 Karl Ave. in Dover, Ohio
  • Phone: 330-505-6003
  • Web: click here

The Ernest Warther Museum and Gardens:  This world-class facility is a fitting tribute to Ernest “Mooney” Warther, the World’s Master Carver. Warther created a collection of steam locomotives carved of ebony and ivory appraised as priceless by the Smithsonian Institution. The carvings are displayed in a beautiful Swiss chalet with a new theater handcrafted solid curly maple. You will also experience new displays and the expanded knifemaking & woodshop. Freida Warther’s Button House is still a sight to see, and the Swiss gardens are magnificent in the summer.

The original Warther Carving Museum opened three generations ago and has blossomed into an attraction that draws visitors worldwide. The amazing Warther story is presented by knowledgeable guides and enhanced by films that include family photos and movies of Mooney carving in his shop. Some of the new displays show his traveling years, his love of reading, and commando knives made during World War II.

Dave Warther, Mooney’s son or grandson Mark, is usually in the lobby greeting visitors and carving souvenir wooden pliers for children. Mooney made the pliers famous by placing 10 interconnecting cuts into a wood block. Another grandson, Dale, makes handcrafted kitchen knives. You can observe the cutlery and knife blocks being created from the knife shop viewing area. The Warther gift shop is operated by Dave’s wife, Joanne, and his daughter Carol. It is the exclusive home of Warther Cutlery.

Excerpt from a past edition of OhioTraveler

CARVING A SPECIAL NICHE IN LIFE

When a guy is named Mooney, you expect something out of the ordinary.  Mooney Warther would not have been a disappointment. He was witty, funny, gifted, eccentric, ambitious, and entrepreneurial—genius would not adequately describe his stature.

Ernest “Mooney” Warther was a woodcarver extraordinaire.  Terms such as “world’s greatest” or “world’s best” are often used as fictitious hype, but when applied to Mooney’s aptitude with a knife, they are not an exaggeration.

Hearing such exalted claims to believe such talent is found only in some strange faraway venue is a quirk of human nature. In truth, one of the most skilled artists in history was born, grew up, and plied his trade—largely unnoticed—in our back yard: Dover, Ohio.

His father died when Mooney was three, and he acquired only a second-grade education that took him four years to complete.  Mooney didn’t have much time for school—he was working.  His cattle herding for a penny a day was the source of his name—an adulterated version of “moonay” from his Swiss heritage that means bull of the herd.

On one of his herding excursions in 1890 at the age of five, he found a pocketknife and began carving.  Mooney said it was a hobo who taught him to cut a pair of pliers from a solid block of wood.  It was a procedure he perfected and claimed as his signature. It is estimated that Mooney made and gave away 750,000 of the little wooden devices in his career.

By age fourteen, he worked in a steel mill but continually carved models of steam locomotives that had enthralled him since early childhood. At one point, however, he found time to carve a working model of the mill, including an animated figure of his old friend who liked to hide behind a furnace and steal a nip from his flask.

Mooney carved hardwoods like walnut and ebony and was dissatisfied with store-bought knives that wouldn’t hold an edge.  No doubt, aided by his experience at the mill, Mooney researched different types of steel and techniques of tempering and sharpening. He first made a kitchen knife for his mother. It was so good that word spread rapidly, and by 1923 Mooney left the mill and began making knives as a business.

It was the same year that the New York Central Railroad discovered his locomotive carvings. He was offered fifty thousand dollars, plus five thousand per year to stay with the display. Henry Ford made an even more generous offer, but Mooney declined both.  “My roof doesn’t leak, I’m not hungry, and my wife has all her buttons,” he said.  (His wife was a collector of buttons, which are displayed along with Mooney’s carvings.)

While Mooney designed his carving knives, he decided to see how far he could go with his pliers-making expertise.  He started with a large block and hewed one pair after another—all connected until he had a “tree” of pliers—511 that could be folded back, recreating the block from which they were fashioned.  It was an exercise in mental dexterity as well as carving skills. Engineering professors from what was then the Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland studied the sculpture and proclaimed it was impossible to have been produced in one piece. Yet undeniably, there it was.

As a young boy, I received one of Mooney’s pliers.  His bushy snow-white curls bounced as he talked non-stop in his high-pitched gravelly voice.  He held a four-inch rectangular piece of wood in one hand and, with the other, made a series of quick strokes with a short-bladed knife. He opened it in about five seconds, revealing handles hinged to jaws just like a pair of pliers. My eyes bulged in wonder as he handed it to me, the youngest in the family of viewers.

But the pliers rate only as a parlor trick compared with his train carvings.  They’re done in exact scale and authentic in minute detail.  Some of them have as many as 7,500 parts:  pipes, rivets, screws, connecting rods, perfectly round wheels—each created on a simple bench with a vise and Mooney’s carving knives.  Many are equipped with electric motors that turn all the moving parts, held by bearings he made from a Brazilian “oily” wood that never needs lubrication.  As well as wood, he used ivory for some almost microscopic pieces. Because of his love for elephants, his ivory carvings were mostly from old billiard balls.  Engineers have poured over his models with precision instruments and measuring devices, drawing the same conclusions as most nonprofessional observers: The replicas are so exact that they couldn’t have been carved by hand. But they were.

By the time railroads began phasing out steam engines; Mooney had carved 54 exact-scale counterparts of his favorite iron horses, but swore as long as he lived, he’d never carve a diesel locomotive.

Instead, he began a series of “Great Events in American Railroad History.”  He created a solid ivory rendition of the driving of the golden spike connecting the transcontinental railroad, the great locomotive chase, and the Lincoln funeral train. He was working on the Lady Baltimore locomotive when he died at eighty-seven, leaving it unfinished.

All of his work can be seen at the museum in Dover, displayed in a style worthy of the Smithsonian.

Mooney’s carvings are so notable as to make the cutlery business seem secondary, although since its inception, it has been a foundation of the family business. Mooney taught his sons and grandsons the art of making knives, and they continue to this day—everyone annealed and hand ground to Mooney’s specifications.

During the Big War, starting with a single request, Mooney made 1,100 personalized commando knives carried by every rank, including Generals. The Walthers have made special knives and kitchen cutlery for several presidents and dignitaries. Yet the most important contribution to the commercial success was allowing Mooney to pursue his true passion.

Like one bull in a herd—Mooney Warther had no peer.

By Robert Carpenter
Robert Carpenter was born and raised in the New Philadelphia, Ohio area. He’s a freelance writer presently living in Florida.

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