Warther family carves out a 100-year niche

Posted by | February 28, 2012

The following article by Joe Wright ran February 25 in the Times Reporter (of Dover-New Philadelphia, OH). It is reprinted here with permission.

It has been 100 years since Ernest “Mooney” Warther, known as the “World’s Master Carver,” built a 10-foot by 14-foot workshop in the backyard of his Dover residence. The young man, who as a boy found a penknife in the road, set out to carve the history of the steam locomotive in ivory and ebony, and to handcraft kitchen knives.

Steven Cunningham files a piece of ivory as he repairs one of Ernest "Mooney" Warther's locomotive carvings as Warther's workshop celebrates its 100th anniversary.

Steven Cunningham files a piece of ivory as he repairs one of Ernest "Mooney" Warther's locomotive carvings as Warther's workshop celebrates its 100th anniversary.

The shop still stands at 331 Karl Ave., part of the complex that houses Warther Cutlery, Warther Museum and Warther Travel.

Guests can visit the 50,000-square-foot museum, gift shop and knife factory, take a stroll through the Swiss-style garden or check out Frieda Warther’s Button House that has a collection of more than 73,000 buttons displayed in designs on the walls and ceiling.

FAMILY BUSINESS

The Warther business is run today by third- and fourth-generation family members. They give tours and make their famous handcrafted kitchen knives. Mooney actually made his first kitchen knife 110 years ago, in 1902.

Today, Mark Warther, grandson of Mooney and Frieda, is president of the museum. His son, Patrick Warther, is museum director. A daughter, Katie Warther Cunningham, is in charge of special events. Her husband, Steve Cunningham, is marketing director. Mark’s mother, Joanne, still spends time at the museum as well.

In the knife factory, Carol Moreland, Mark’s sister, is president. Her husband, Dana, works in the knife shop. Their son, Kyle Moreland, does cutlery marketing. Other family members, Karl and Kurt Warther, sons of the late Dale Warther, also make knives.

INSIDE THE MUSEUM

The museum is a treasure.

Mark’s father, the late David Warther, was the one who wanted to preserve Mooney’s work and purchased a lot in 1963 so the museum could eventually be built. David Warther died last March.

A couple of visitors from Lake County made their way through the museum Thursday and came away with a great appreciation for the magic Mooney created with his talents.

“It was amazing … the fine detail of the carvings,” said Madonna Knaus. “We’ve been through Sugarcreek so many times and I’ve seen signs for the museum. I said we should stop there today.”

Tony Tarantino, who is Captain Tony, mascot of the Cleveland Indians’ Class A Lake County Captains, was impressed.

“I found it mind-boggling,” said Tarantino, who also commented on the detail of the work. “The Lincoln train, where you could look inside one of the windows of one of the cars and there was a lock on a door with a keyhole and a key hanging on the door. It was fascinating.”

Dee Grossman, executive director of Tuscarawas County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the Warther complex is an example of their slogan “Small Towns … Big Stories.”

“When I moved to Tuscarawas County in 1979, it was one of the first places I visited,” said Grossman. “I’ve been there hundreds of times and they have wowed me ever since … I learn something new every time I visit.”

STORIES TO TELL

Mark Warther can tell many stories about Mooney that takes one back through history.

Mooney built his workshop so he could see outside into the backyard where he set up equipment, including a big swing, where his children and their neighborhood friends would play.

Mooney would carve his projects as early as 2 a.m., then go to work at the Reeves Steel Mill and still find time for the children. He would whittle items for the children, tell them stories and take them on afternoon swims.

“It was the Dover playground,” said Mark about the backyard. “Children were very important to him.”

Today the workshop is still used. Mark and son-in-law Steve Cunningham have made chess sets from ebony and ivory. Mooney had made a chess set of ebony, ivory and pearl for comedian Henry Morgan, who helped get Mooney on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson in 1965.

Another interesting feature is the arrowhead collection that is displayed on walls inside the workshop.

“He used to take family with him to hunt for arrowheads but he would have some with him (so everyone could find an arrowhead),” Mark said. “If you go arrowhead hunting and don’t find one, you might not go try again.”

CENTENNIAL

Mark said they plan on featuring the shop more this year to celebrate its 100th birthday.

“We will still do the normal events like the fundraiser,” Mark said. “But in 2013 we will probably do more because it will be 100 years since he (Mooney) started carving.”

The carvings of trains that Mooney created from ebony and ivory (and soup bones in early days) will have people shaking their heads. The detail is amazing and can only be truly appreciated by seeing them up close.

The Lincoln funeral train was completed by Mooney on April 14, 1965, the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. The detail, which has Lincoln laying in a casket on the train, is breathtaking. Mooney’s father died when he was young, so he idolized Lincoln.

Another highlight is the Empire State Express, an eight-foot ivory train on a stone arch bridge. Each stone is carved of ebony and the mortar is inlaid ivory.

The Warther carvings have been appraised by the Smithsonian as “priceless works of art.”

Not bad for the boy who found a penknife in the road and had a second-grade education. But Mark said the educational fact is a bit misleading.

“He read a lot of books,” said Mark.

Some of those books contained shop drawings with the details of sizes for the parts of trains. Warther would then carve his miniature versions.

WOODEN PLIERS

Mark Warther is an accomplished carver himself. He pulls out a knife, makes 10 cuts in a single block of wood and suddenly pliers have been created.

“I’ve had people come back when they were older and tell me that they still have the pliers from when they made a school visit,” Mark said.

It’s no wonder that pliers have been a big part of the tour. Mooney made a tree of pliers from a single block of wood. There are 511 working pliers from that single block of wood that required 31,000 cuts and took a little more than three months to complete in 1913. When he was finished with that project, he moved on to carving.

One of the more interesting stories about Mooney is when his brother Fred used to take the carvings by truck as a traveling museum. The money was needed during tough times.

In fact, the Great Depression had such an impact that Mooney actually stopped carving for 12 years.

Mooney did make 1,100 commando knives during World War II ,which prompted somebody to call his shop the smallest defense plant in the country.

Today, the family businesses help support the museum, much like when Mooney was carving as a hobby and making money with his knives.

Last month, the Warther family was honored with the Tuscarawas County Tourism Ambassador Award, presented by the Tuscarawas County Convention and Visitors Bureau

Mark said the museum/knife shop is visited by 70,000 to 80,000 people a year. The business sells 50,000 knives a year. Workers hand-grind each knife and powdered steel — the highest quality metal — is used. The spotting on the blade comes from a process called “Engine Turning” and this unique pattern on the metal lets people know it is a Warther knife.

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