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Warthers Museum

By Kate Minnich • Amish Heartland Writer & Designer Published: October 1, 2015 12:00 AM
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Warther's Museum houses the whittlings of Ernest, "Mooney", Warther, but the contents are beyond the common conception of whittling. Beautifully carved pieces of walnut, ivory, and ebony rest behind glass frames, showcasing Mooney's self-taught talent.

At the ripe old age of six, Mooney found a knife and began whittling. Mooney's father had died and he was working as a cow herder in order to earn money for the family. This afforded long days with little to do but watch the cows eat. Carving on fence posts, trees and stray pieces of wood, Mooney perfected his whittling skills. Mooney grew up close to the railroad and always wished to work for them, but he didn't have the required seventh grade education. A vast majority of the carvings depict trains or railroad events due to Mooney's fascination with the industry.

The whittlings turned into elaborate works of art, while Mooney considered this as a hobby and refused to take money for his work, he eventually built a museum in order to display them. Before the museum's creation, Mooney had been taking people through his home to see his work; his teenage children were less than enthusiastic about the practice. A small building was built as a museum in 1936 behind the family home and remained the museum until 1963. Mooney's son, David spearheaded the building of the current Warther's Museum (1963) in an effort to better showcase his father's talent.

Contents of the museum range from staffs, mechanical scenes, button art and pieces depicting the history of the railroad. The carvings depicting the history of the steam engine were produced between Mooney's 28th and 62nd year of life. Once Mooney turned 72, be turned to carving Lincoln memorabilia and other important events in the railroad's history.

Before entering the exhibit portion of the museum, visitors can look inside Mooney's original workshop. The workshop has been absorbed by the museum building but contains all the features and tools Mooney created and worked with during his days of carving. Beyond his whittlings, the workshop displays Mooney's abstract thinking through the creation of storage space and seating. A shutter can be swung on its hinges to reveal small shelves cut into the wall and a bench can be unfolded from what visitors assume to be a cabinet door.

Upon entering the exhibits visitors are met with photographs, photography equipment, mechanical scenes, and trains. Mooney's mother was a photographer and her equipment as well as several photographs adorn a wall. The photographs depict Mooney, his siblings and his mother, providing an opportunity to view Mooney's childhood. Large mechanical factory scenes are set up in the middle of the room that were carved and mechanized by Mooney. These fully functional pieces are run by spinning wheels and belts within a glass case below the scene.

There is a portion within this first exhibit room that has a complete train and a train in pieces. Individual pieces are tacked onto a board allowing onlookers to see all the little pieces that created the completed train. Mooney wanted people to see the logistics of the train. Each individual piece was hand carved by Mooney and then put together just as a life-sized train would be.

The next room is a small auditorium that plays a 15-minute movie detailing Mooney's experimenting with the creation of pliers. When Mooney was a child he met a hobo who gave him a small pair of wooden pliers, after examining them, Mooney found out how to carve the item out of one piece of wood. The experiments didn't stop there. Thinking through the process, Mooney thought that he could also carve pliers into the handles of the original pliers and have them fold out. The project snowballed into the creation of a plier tree, its creation took Mooney two months and four days.

The second exhibit room is dedicated to what Mooney referred to as his "whittlings". Within the whittling room visitors can find trains and staffs. Scaled at one-half inch to a foot, the pieces are perfect scale models. The carvings within this room depict the history of the steam engine. One of the carvings present is a Trevithick's locomotive which was the first engine to run on rails in 1803, its average speed was five miles an hour.

Ornate staffs within the exhibit are accompanied with photos of Mooney at the beginning, middle and end of his process. Carved from one piece of wood the detailed staffs have a Lincoln bust and a sphere contained behind wood bars. Human hands have never touched the sphere. Mooney used a knife with a long blade in order to reach through the bars and carve the sphere. Each staff took between 12 and 15 hours for Mooney to complete.

Mooney's library and source of reference can be found within the second exhibit room. Obtaining information from encyclopedias, engineering manuals and observations, Mooney's models were found to be without fault by educated engineers. Beyond the books, Mooney would walk around and climb on the engines in order to learn how they worked or how the individual pieces looked.

The Lincoln memorabilia and significant railroad events carvings can be found in the third exhibit. Throughout his life Mooney admired Abraham Lincoln, going so far as to paste a picture of him into his diary. Mooney's carvings depicted many events surrounding Lincoln including his replica of the Lincoln Funeral Train complete with the Lincoln casket. Another fascinating piece within the collection is an ivory carving of the golden spike scene. The white of the ivory gives an eery glow to the two engines, and three present figures.

Mooney's whittling hobby turned into a way of life and a way of supporting his family. In 1902, Mooney started a company selling handcrafted kitchen cutlery. At the end of the museum tour visitors are taken to the knife factory where they are able to see how the knives are made. The business is still in full operation and family owned.

After the carving museum was built in 1963, Mooney's wife, Freida used the original museum as a workshop of her own. Buttons in all shapes, colors, and materials are organized into beautiful configurations she designed. The buttons were obtained from Swedish women who immigrated to America and wished to leave the Swedish tradition of button boxes behind. Freida collected the discarded button boxes and in the 50s and 60s began to design button art. One of the displays contains buttons all made by Goodyear. She collected and mounted over 72,000 buttons to masonite using sewing floss which then ran along the back. The workshop is open to visitors and is located outside the museum's main building.

The home of Mooney and Freida has been restored to its 1920's configuration and is open to the public. Visitors can walk through the first floor of the home, viewing the kitchen, dining room, library and living room. The library contains Mooney's workbench which sits just as it would have in 1920 when the winter was so bad that he moved his worktable into the home. The table in the dining room contains holes where Freida poked through the Masonite boards too far while creating her button art. In short the home displays the personality and culture of Mooney and his family providing an intimate look into the man behind the whittlings.

Warther's Museum offers guided tours throughout the day, the last one departing at 3:45. Tours last approximately one hour. Visitors can join a tour in less than 20 minutes no matter what time they arrive. Admission is $13 for adults, $5 for children under 17 with those six and under entering for free. Warther's Museum is located at 331 Karl Avenue Dover, Ohio 44622. For more information visit www.warthers.com or call 330-343-7513.

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