Warther Carvings Museum and Button Collection
You've probably never heard of Ernest "Mooney" Warther, which is a shame. He is the Joan of Arc of American art, an unschooled, untrained marvel whose work so impossibly exceeds what could possibly have been expected of him that it defies explanation.
Unlike Joan, Mooney's accomplishments are obscure, and they are likely to remain that way. They can be seen only in a small town in Ohio. And they consist almost entirely of carvings of pliers and steam engines.
Mooney was born in Dover in 1885 and lived there for most of his 87 years. He never got past the second grade and his father -- who died when Mooney was three -- "couldn't make a wood shaving," according to our museum tour guide.
Mooney, however, could carve. As a boy he met a hobo who taught him to whittle a pair of pliers out of piece of wood. Mooney quickly mastered this. He then set himself the task of seeing how many pliers he could make if each handle of the original plier was then carved to form a new set of pliers, and so on, and so on. His "Plier Tree," on display at the museum, has 511 interconnected pliers carved from a single block of wood. Math professors from Case University in Cleveland studied it, and declared that it was impossible.
Having pushed the plier thing as far as he cared to, Mooney began his second, and grandest, phase of his work -- carving perfect scale replicas of massive locomotive steam engines. The museum is a surprisingly well-mounted shrine to these masterworks, with tasteful displays, key lighting,and spacious galleries that rival anything in New York City or Washington, DC.
Here's the Big Boy, carved in 1953. There's the Lincoln Funeral Train, carved in 1965, with tiny Lincoln in his tiny casket inside. Over there's the Great Northern, carved in 1933, which was Mooney's favorite. He worked almost exclusively in walnut, ebony, and ivory, and since he loved elephants he only used antique tusks or ivory from old billiard balls.
Many of his carvings have small built-in motors so that the engine wheels turn, and Mooney used a special oily Brazilian wood for the bearings so that they would never need lubrication.
Every piece -- and some of the carvings have over 7,500 -- was carved by hand, every pipe, rivet, and lump of coal, even the microscopic connecting rods and eentsy-weentsy screws, all of which must -- and do -- work flawlessly. With only a workbench, a vise, and some hand-made knives, Mooney did this. He even carved perfectly round wheels. The experts put their calipers to his work, shrugged their shoulders, and said that it was impossible.
As you might expect, this is a popular museum with retirees, who like old things and who are favorably inclined toward a story of a family man who confounded the pointy-heads with simple hard work and diligence. The tour guides tell schoolchildren that Mr. Warther would carve from 2 to 5 a.m., then go to work in a machine shop, then come home and carve for two more hours. Only five hours a day to create masterpieces, which is less time than most kids spend texting or playing video games. It's also mentioned that Mooney's encyclopedic knowledge of steam engines came from studying old railroad repair manuals, an example of "what love of reading can do to you."
The tour guides speak with authority, for they are Mooney's grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The Warther Museum is a family business. All of its profits are poured back into it, which explains its spaciousness and expensive displays. "No grant money or tax dollars are used to fund the museum," our tour guide tells us, which is another popular point with the retirees. The Warther family earns its living by making high-end kitchen cutlery, a business begun by Mooney. During World War II Mooney also made custom commando knives,but as soon as the war was over he swore that he would never make another knife for killing.
That vow, however, was not taken by his sons and grandsons, and today the Warther family custom commando knives are in big demand. One, on display outside of the knife shop, is an ivory-handled "Commander in Chief" knife that was made for Commando George W. Bush so that he could single-handedly win the war on terror. (As of our visit he hadn't yet picked it up.) Bring 'em on!
In 1929 Henry Ford offered Mooney $75,000 cash and $5000 a year for life if he would move his family to Ford's Greenfield Village attraction and set up shop there as a living exhibit. Mooney declined, telling Ford that his roof didn't leak, he wasn't hungry, and his wife Freida "had all her buttons" -- a reference to her collection of 73,282 buttons. Freida's collection is also on display in the Warther Museum, in the "Button House," where it is sewed onto fabric panels in dozens of dizzying geometric patterns. It's a tribute to yet another overlooked artist, and another reason to visit this place.