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Rowan artist presented sword to President Ford during his visit to historic Greensboro site in 1976

By Rose Post

Salisbury Post

Luther Sowers is not the only resident of Rowan County who knew or met President Gerald Ford.

But he’s surely the only one who ever made a sword presented to Ford — or possibly any other president, for that matter, though early presidents like George Washington and Andrew Jackson had swords which could have been made especially for them.

And you can’t blame him for wanting to tell people about that unique experience.

The Rowan County artist, who has devoted much of his time to designing and making swords and other items reminiscent of the Revolutionary War, made a one-of-a-kind sword that he presented to Ford when the president visited Greensboro on March 13, 1976.

The design he etched on the top of the polished steel sword blade included the sun, which was often put onto swords in bygone days as a sign of good luck, as well as the name of its owner.

He didn’t finish it until midnight before he himself would present it to the president the following day at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in Greensboro.

And he made no effort to disguise his pleasure.

How often does a person get to make a presentation of an outstanding gift he’d made himself to a president of the United States?

Luther researched the design to make the gift an authentic replica of a sword that might have been carried by an officer in the Revolutionary War — all the way down to the final adjustment of its teak handle.

When the president decided to come, Luther was forced into high gear by the sponsors of the visit, who pushed him to make a special sword for the president.

So he went to work, with the help of two friends — Mickey Black, who belonged to a re-enactment regiment performing at the Bicentennial celebration in Greensboro, and Matt Trexler, a Salisbury High School senior, who sewed the black leather scabbard for Luther.

Normally the job needed a month.

They did it in less than a week.

An artist in many fields, Luther had been interested in military lore much of his life. Ultimately, he turned that interest into a business, which allowed him a great deal of freedom, but not then.

Making a sword for a president made him get up early, go to bed late and never go anywhere except his workshop until the job was done.

And he’ll never forget it.

The presentation took place at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, which had just completed a renovation and new visitor’s center and wanted a grand opening.

Did it ever have one!

Ford announced his visit only a week in advance, Luther recalls.

“That kind of caused a little bit of a problem at the park because they had to suddenly re-arrange everything for the presidential visit,” he says, “and that was difficult to do.

“And the park administration thought they would have to present him with something for his visit,” he recalls. Some suggested a quilt; others, a small medallion; but Donald Long, a ranger historian, somewhat in jest, suggested Luther make him a gold sword.

“The next thing I knew, I was getting phone calls to see if it was possible to make it in a week. I told them we wouldn’t know until we tried,” Luther says.

“So it was a frantic, scrambling push. I could hammer out a blade easily in a day, but the other parts, the leather sheath, the hilt handle parts had to be cast in brass. It was not an overnight project.

“So I sidetracked another man’s project I was making a sword for. I had the hilt parts already cast and later made the additional parts to fill the first man’s order.

“It was a big rush because the parts to be gold-plated had to be rushed over to a plating firm in High Point, and the project was reasonably under control until the White House called and said the president wanted his name on the sword.”

That meant extra time

“And I had another problem,” he says. “No one knew what his middle name was. The initial was ‘R.’ The library didn’t know. A fellow making a wooden display case said it was ‘Rudolph,’ and knowing his sense of humor I thought he was joking, and it turned out it was the name.

“But we went with Gerald R. Ford, assuming the ‘R’ was correct, and it made it easier.”

The night before it was to be presented, with rain pouring outside, he got the job done.

When the presentation was made, the handle of the sword was very small and delicate, he says, “and I stood there all through the president’s speech holding the box, which got quite heavy, and when the president came up for the presentation at the end of the speech, the first thing he did was button his coat and then put his hand out to shake my hand.

“And the first thing I thought that was the biggest hand I’d ever seen, and I thought I needed to build a bigger sword.”

He remembers little conversation except that he told the president how to keep it clean, “and I got some ribbing because … I was telling the president how to take care of his stuff.”

Any gift to the president valued over $50 automatically becomes the property of the nation, Luther says, “so knowing the president personally wanted the sword, we had to make sure no invoices passed the $50 limit.”

The sword evidently stayed in the president’s personal possession, Luther says, because Marty West of Ohio, a member of the First Maryland Regiment, a Revolutionary War re-enactment unit, had occasion to speak to the president at a later time. Marty asked if the president remembered being given the sword at Guilford Courthouse, and he did.

As a matter of fact, the president reportedly said, it was in his library, but whether that meant in his personal library or the presidential library was not clear.

“So whether today it’s in the family or has been turned over to the presidential museum and library, I don’t know,” Luther says.

All his swords are numbered. The president’s sword is No. 30. Luther is currently working on No. 277, so it’s obvious the president’s sword is an early example of Luther’s work.

A month after the ceremony at Guilford Courthouse, Luther received an official White House photograph showing the presentation of the sword. It had hung in the White House, where photographs in the halls are changed monthly.

An acquaintance who worked in the Oval Office sent the picture to Luther because it showed the sword. On the back of the picture was a photo seal that said it was a White House photo.

And today?

He has fond memories of the event, and an official White House photograph as a souvenir.

Moreover, he had an opportunity to speak to President Ford.

He’s the “only president,” he says, “I ever had a personal conversation with.”

He’s seen Eisenhower twice, as well as Nixon, President Carter’s wife and Reagan.

But Ford?

“He was real and down-to-earth.”

Contact Rose Post at 704-797-4251 or rpost@salisburypost.com.

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