Badass with a Knife: Ohio’s Warther Carving Museum

Ernest "Mooney" Warther was perhaps the most productive man of the 20th century and a badass with a knife.

When we first started up Badass Digest, I remember telling Devin about a whittler from eastern Ohio and how I thought he was one of the most badass characters I've ever come across. He was highly dubious of this claim, and I promised to make my case and write a Badass article about the guy. A year later and I still have it on my to-do list. I'm taking most of this month off for paternity leave and am not supposed to be working. I'm up at 2AM and can't sleep, so I'm going to give it a whirl and sell this guy as a genuine badass.

From sixth grade to twelfth grade I grew up in southeastern Ohio. All the while I was completely unaware of what is now my favorite museum in the entire world, only an hour away from where I used to live. I was back in my hometown of St. Clairsville, Ohio for a wedding and took a few extra days to show my wife the sights. If anyone is in the area, my faves are: Coleman's Fish Market  in Wheeling West Virginia; Home Pizza in downtown St. Clairsville (an acquired taste apparently, she was repulsed while I swallowed pure nostalgia) and Gulla's Hot Dogs in Bellaire. After those three, I kinda ran out of steam and started looking for suggestions from the wedding party. The father of the bride heartily recommended a trip to nearby Dover, Ohio to visit the Warther Carving Museum. We went for it and I am forever grateful that I did.

The museum is a shrine built to one very unique and quietly driven man, Ernest "Mooney" Warther, born 1885. At age five, Mooney met hobo who showed him how to carve a working pair of pliers out of a block of wood with 10 simple cuts. That day something clicked (or maybe snapped) in Mooney brain, triggering a 79 year obsession with carving. The first room of the massive museum is dedicated to Mooney's subsequent "plier years." After the hobo unlocked the 10-stroke plier secret, Mooney compulsively carved pliers out of everything, down to a working pair carved out of matchsticks. He estimated by the time he died, he carved 750,000 pairs of pliers; countless varieties of which are on display in this first room. After many years of fixating on the theme of pliers, Mooney completing his crowning "plier tree." Out of one small block of wood he made 31,000 cuts, creating a blossoming tree with 510 working sets of pliers. The entire carving can be folded back into the original block of wood. He could do nothing further with pliers. It was time to move on.

Mooney dropped out of school after the second grade to help work the family's cattle farm. When he was fourteen, he began working for a local steel mill, all the while still carving every single day. In the next room of the unfathomably expansive museum you can see a mechanically driven recreation of the mill where he worked. Carved out of walnut and ivory, the model accurately depicted the daily workings of the mill, down to the detail of a drunken employee hiding in the corner bending his elbow to covertly down a pint of whiskey. The complex circular and linear motions are all driven by one motor, originally his mother's sewing machine hooked up to a dizzying array of pulleys and gears on the underside of the display table.

Mooney worked at the mill for 23 years and later worked every day at his own knife manufacturing facility. He would wake up at 2AM, carve until 5AM, have breakfast with his family, work a full day, play with his kids after school (and later his grand kids), have dinner, carve for 2 more hours, sleep and then start it all over again. He did this virtually every day of his life until he died at the age of 84.

It is hard to describe just how expansive the museum collection is, particularly with the perspective that every masterpiece contained within was hand-crafted by one man. After the first three of four rooms, I felt surely the end was near. But the displays kept going and going and going and going and going.

Shortly after carving the steel mill, Mooney became obsessed with steam engines, learning their intricate construction details from second-hand repair manuals. He began carving the entire history of the steam train, and then towards the end of his life focused on specific trains depicting "great moments in steam train history." He carved 64 steam trains in total, many of them with thousands of delicate interconnected moving parts.

Take his final completed carving as an example of his craft. At the age of 80, he carved the Lincoln funeral train (pictured above) out of ebony and ivory. Inside the funeral car containing the casket, there is an ivory key hanging above the door. If you were to take down that key and insert it into the lock, it would actually unlock the door. The key and the inner workings of the lock mechanism were all carved out of nearly microscopic flakes of ivory.

The final room is in a way the most impressive. It contains the 1000s and 1000s of unassembled parts from his 64th and final train project. Rivets, pipes, valves, hinges and pulleys of the incomplete project are on display in case after case. He was carving up until the day that he died.

Its impossible to travel through this museum and not both feel completely lazy and inferior by comparison but on the flip side inspired and motivated. Mooney had almost no formal education, yet he was a tremendous artist and innovator and has one of the most impressive displays of creative personal output I have ever seen. He spent his entire life doing what he loved and still made time to hang out with his family. He's a personal inspiration and I hope more and more people learn about his amazing body of work.

If you are within a couple hundred miles of the sleepy town of Dover, Ohio, you owe it to yourself to pay a special pilgrimage to one of America's great unsung badasses, Ernest "Mooney" Warther. Tell 'em Badass Digest sent you. They will probably wince a bit, though, as you'll be in the heart of Amish country and as a rule the Amish aren't big on tossing around the A-word.

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