If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home. This week we head to the Buckeye State, also known as The Mother of Presidents, The Birthplace of Aviation, and the self-proclaimed Heart of it All: Ohio. 

The Handmade Trains of Mooney Warther

In 1890, a hobo showed 5-year-old Ernest “Mooney” Warther how to carve a working pair of pliers out of a block of wood using only 10 cuts with a knife. Astounded by the man’s skill, Warther taught himself how to carve, resulting in some of the most amazing sculptures you’ll ever see.

At first, the young Warther was obsessed with just making pliers. It’s estimated that he carved 750,000 pairs during his lifetime, including one set made from a matchstick. His crowning achievement in this field, though, was a “plier tree” featuring 511 connected, branching pairs, made using 31,000 cuts on a single block of wood in only 64 hours. 

But pliers were just the beginning for Warther. Using walnut and ivory, Warther carved a working model of the steel mill he was employed at for 23 years. The model featured men operating the machines, each piece hand carved with such detail you can see the wrinkles in clothes and individual rivets on the machinery. Thanks to a system of pulleys and gears hooked up to a single sewing machine motor—all engineered by Warther, who only had a second grade education—miniature equipment spun and chugged away while workers pulled on levers and moved back and forth across the factory floor.    

Soon after, Warther turned his attention to steam engines, and, over the next 40 years, carved a history of the machine from the Hero’s Engine in 250 BC up to the Union Pacific Big Boy Locomotive from 1941. At the age of 68, he moved on to famous trains like the one that carried Abraham Lincoln’s body on its cross-country tour, using walnut, ebony, ivory, and mother of pearl to dazzling effect. With old repair manuals and blueprints as a guide, Warther’s 63 train models, some as long as eight feet, are incredibly detailed. Many of the trains contain over 7000 hand carved parts assembled mostly without glue, held together with a system of pins and a good, tight fit. The detail is so precise that a tiny ivory key hanging on Lincoln’s funeral car would actually open the door to the car if placed inside the equally tiny lock and turned. In addition, levers move, bells swing, and pistons and wheels pump perfectly in time, a feat that required a certain level of mathematical and mechanical genius.  

Sadly, Warther's last train, the Lady Baltimore locomotive, was never completed; he was working on it when he died at the age of 87 in 1973. Thousands of the parts he had already carved for the Lady Baltimore, as well as all of his trains, pliers, and other carving projects, are on display at the Warther Museum in Dover, Ohio. Aside from Warther’s carvings, you can also see his collection of more than 5,000 Native American arrowheads and artifacts, his wife Frieda’s collection of over 100,000 buttons, and watch as the latest generation of Warthers carry on the family business crafting handmade kitchen knives featuring a unique swirled pattern on the blade.   

Have the scoop on an unusual person, place or event in your state?  Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States!  

Peruse the whole Strange States series here.