“You have to have a vision.” These words guided Master Carver Ernest Warther throughout his life. He instilled that concept in his family, who today can be found at Warthers in Dover, Ohio. The Smithsonian describes this museum’s displays as “Priceless works of art.”
Early in life, Ernest, called Mooney by most who knew him, worked for the railroad. When he began whittling, it seemed natural to use his passion to create the history of steam engines with moving parts.
During his early years when money was scarce, Mooney used chipped and cracked cue balls made of ivory for his trains. When he rode his bicycle around town, he would often stop at pool halls on his trips to a favorite spot, Woolworths. Cue balls, walnut, coal, mussel shells and beef bone formed his early locomotives because…they were free.
At this point, he no longer called it whittling, as now he carved trains to perfection. His intricate designs were displayed in New York Central Railroad and later in their traveling road show, Famous Warther Models, that carried his engines to the forty-eight continental states during its thirty year run.
Completion of one carving at a time was the order of business for this mathematical and mechanical genius. While Master Carver Mooney used walnut wood and soup bones for his early carvings, he later used ivory for the white parts of his trains and ebony for the black. None of his trains were glued, but parts were intricately pegged together.
Mooney carved one of his best and favorite replicas, The Great Northern Locomotive, in 1932-33. The cursive words on the side were all hand carved out of ivory – each word a solid piece. The number on the side of the locomotive represents the number of pieces used – backwards; therefore, this carving contained 7,752 pieces, many of them moving.
A hobo at the train station told him about a self-lubricating wood, arguto. If Mooney used this hardwood on the bearing surface, the parts would never need oiling. Those trains built with arguto still run smoothly today nearly 80 years later.
Mooney enjoyed the neighborhood children stopping by his workshop. He kept a brick outside his workshop door. When children would stop by and ask Mooney to play with them, he had a quick answer. “If I throw up this brick and it stays in the air, I have to work in my shop.” The children adored him.
The eyetooth of the hippo, the finest grade of ivory, was used in the famous Lincoln Funeral Train, which Mooney carved at the age of eighty. Being a big fan of the history and philosophy of Lincoln, he paid tribute to him by carving his funeral train on the 100th anniversary of his assassination.
Since it was often difficult to find the treasured hippo ivory, he then settled for the second best – ivory of a walrus, and even third- that from an elephant. Much of the ivory came from baby elephants when they lost their baby tusks. You can imagine the excitement at the railroad yard as the ivory was always delivered by train.
The last carving completed was Old Ironsides in 1966. Mooney always tried to be accurate in his scale models and often used 1/2″ to a foot. Speed never figured into his carvings, as he might carve about 1,000 small pieces a month.
The Warther family story serves as an inspiration to organize your time so you can create something special, while leaving time for family first. In his eyes, everyone had a significant talent, the trick was in finding it. His exceptional natural talent for whittling and carving has filled the museum with amazing pieces. As Mooney remarked regarding his carvings, “Pretty good for a second grade education!”
Warthers can be found easily off I-77 in Dover, Ohio. Take Exit 83 to the east and follow the well placed signs to Warthers.