Visitors to museum still awed by master woodcarver Mooney Warther’s trains.
A look at the awesome art of Ernest “Mooney” Warther — carvings of working model trains displayed at The Warther Museum in Dover — begins with a glimpse at the artist’s whimsical nature.
Mark Warther, “Mooney” Warther’s grandson, sent a tour group into the main gallery of the museum recently by first carving a pair of the working wooden pliers that his grandfather, and later his father Dave Warther, once created.
“My granddad always kept blocks of wood in his pocket and every time he encountered a child he would carve a pair of pliers,” said Warther, speaking as he made cuts in wood of his own. “He learned early in his life that he could make them with 10 interlocking cuts, and he became so good at it that he could make a pair of pliers in 10 seconds.
“This is a tradition we maintain to this day,” he said, handing the finished pliers to a child in the front row of the tour group.
Beside Warther was the famed “Pliers Tree” — 511 connected miniature pliers that Mooney Warther carved with 31,000 cuts, all of which fold up into a single wooden block.
“To him, this was ‘whittling,’” said his grandson. “He finished it in 1913, when he was 28 years old. He said then that ‘I’m done whittling, now I’m going to carve.’ For the next 40 years, from the age of 28 to 68, he carved the history of the steam engine.”
MORE THAN “MOONEY”
The Warther Museum — two large galleries that contain dozens of Warther’s trains and other carvings — extends beyond one man’s artistry to tell the story of his family.
The home in which “Mooney” and his wife, Freida, lived is part of the tour, as is the small structure in which the artist displayed the first of his carvings. That building now houses some of Freida Warther’s 73,000-piece button collection.
Beside the “button house” is Freida’s garden, a floral display that the family continues to maintain. “That grapevine is 97 years old,” said Mark Warther. The garden leads to Warther’s original small workshop, from which the museum now extends. Warther family members continue to carve in that workshop, which also is the home of a portion of Warther’s collection of 5,000 arrowheads.
“Mooney and Freida really got into their hobbies,” said the artist’s great-grandson, Patrick Warther, who is general manager of the museum.
Carving was a hobby to the elder Warther. He made his living from manufacturing knives. Knife-making remains the family business. A level beneath the museum is devoted to the creation of quality knives — their trademark design in a swirl pattern in their blades — that are sold only in the museum’s gift shop and online.
Page 2 of 2 - Above the knife factory is Mooney Warther’s art — creations that he would get up early each morning to carve.
Warther’s favorite creation, a Great Northern Railway train made mostly of ebony, occupies its own case in the main gallery. Also displayed is a carving of New York Central Railroad’s “20th Century Limited.” Other carvings occupy cases along the wall.
“This Union Pacific was the last train he carved before he retired,” said Patrick Warther, before noting that his great-grandfather’s retirement was short in duration. “Four years later he decided he wanted to carve historical events in steam engine history.”
So, the museum’s “Ivory Room” contains trains — including the Lincoln Funeral Train — that Warther carved from that substance from when he was 72 until he was 85.
“This is his unfinished piece,” said Patrick Warther, pointing out a Baltimore & Ohio train called “The Ladie Baltimore” that was about 75 percent complete. “Mooney was 85 years old when he was working on it in 1971.”
Warther’s carving capability was diminishing. His son, Dave, Mark’s father, who also carved, offered to complete the piece, but Mooney Warther respectfully declined.
“He said he wanted to keep it the way it was to show just how far he took his carving career,” said Patrick Warther. “He died two years later in 1973 at the age of 87.”
The story of Mooney Warther — his life was long and well filled with experiences — is a difficult one to tell, said his great-grandson. Guides can point out details in the trains. They can note that the scale model carvings are illuminated and mechanical so they would move if set down on a track. Visitors still will be awestruck when they look at carvings that a Smithsonian Institution appraisal once determined to be “priceless.”
That the Warther family is able to display the trains at all is due to Mooney Warther’s ability to balance his carving against his love of his family and his caring for his community, said Mark Warther.
“Henry Ford and New York Central both tried to buy his carvings, so they could display them,” said the grandson. “They offered to pay him money that would have made him a millionaire by today’s standards. He wouldn’t sell. He said it he was going to display them anywhere, it would be in his hometown.”
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