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Ernest Borr Can Speak the Language

Stelter Stan. “Ernest Borr Can Speak the Language.” Bismarck Tribune, 16 February 1982, 9B.


STRASBURG - Ernest Borr Sr. can understand and speak the German language.

He taught rural school in the Strasburg community, has been active in community affairs and twice has been elected mayor of the city, which has a high percentage of German residents. In fact, in 1933 he married a local German girl, the former Kathryn Schafer.

Borr, however, is a Dutchman. But he has blended into the German community. “I enjoyed it. It was a challenge,” he says.

So, he doesn’t see anything surprising about knowing less of his native language than German. Borr, in a matter-of-fact manner, says, “Look where I live.”

Once there used to be a kind of “clannishness” among ethnic groups, acknowledges Borr, and he admits he initially associated more with the Dutch in the community.

But that clannish approach “is no longer the case,” emphasizes Borr. Now people get together as a community and groups intermingle, he says. “It’s like they say, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. I just worked in with it,” he explains.

Part of his assimilation was a decision to switch from the Reformed Church to Catholicism.

Community involvement by the Borr family actually began with Borr’s father, Peter, who was elected mayor of Strasburg just after World War I. Peter served some of that term in absentia while living in Iowa, further testimony to his acceptance in the German community.

Borr’s parents, Peter and Margaret Bor (his father spelled the name with one ‘r’ but the family uses two), were among the first Dutch settlers in the area in 1884.

Borr’s parents had moved to Aberdeen, S.D., which then was in Dakota Territory, from Michigan, where Borr’s grandfather had immigrated from Holland in 1847.

The first home the Peter Bor family built was a sod structure about 18 miles south of Strasburg. It was near there that Ernest’s father helped establish the H.C. Van Raalte Church, which reportedly was the only sod church of the Reformed Church in America. Borr still has the minutes of the beginnings of that church, which he says is the forerunner of the two Dutch churches near Hull.

Borr was born in 1905 at one of several family residences his father built south of Strasburg. The youngest of 12 children, Borr remembers growing up on the family farm east of Pollock, S.D. His father then was a carpenter and part of his business was building caskets. “When someone died, they went to Pete Bor to get a casket built,” says Ernest.

Borr says the sons worked the farm while his father served as manager. Horses raised on the farm were shipped to Michigan. “I never remember my father working in the field,” he says. “We all had our jobs.”

Peter Bor moved his family into Strasburg after two sons came home from service in World War I to take over the family farm. It was then that Ernest’s father was elected town mayor, but he served part of the term in Iowa, where the family moved in 1922. That move came to allow a son, Elmer, to attend a preparatory academy for the ministry.

After Elmer’s graduation in 1925, the family moved on to Pella, Iowa, where he entered college.

However, when the family moved to Michigan - so Elmer could attend a seminary - Ernest stayed to finish two years of college at Pella and then taught school at Huxley, Iowa. He also was athletic director at Huxley, where several of the school’s athletic teams had success on the state level.

In 1933, Borr returned to Strasburg, taking up his sister’s invitation to board at her home while he taught in a rural school for two years.

He says he and former students in the community still have good memories from those years. For instance, Borr says, they still recall when he used to buy jelly beans, which he would scatter in the fields around the school before the youngsters would arrive.

“Then I would suggest that they should go out and see if the Easter rabbit came,” he says. “They had a ball.”

While teaching, Borr ended up walking some six miles to the school because his 1929 Buick broke down and he couldn’t afford the $9 in repairs. But a local man, George Silvernagel, who lived near the school, offered to board Borr the rest of the school year. He did so even though Borr couldn’t afford to pay the $5 monthly rate because he was drawing warrants then instead of pay.

“Grandpa” Silvernagel told him he could pay him when he could afford to, Borr recalls.

Borr met and married Kathryn that year. At that time, marrying out of one’s ethnic group wasn’t widely accepted and Borr says both his parents and Kathryn’s questioned whether they should marry. “But we just wanted each other,” says Borr.

Borr turned to trucking and eventually became involved in various community affairs, including the Civic Club, school board, church choir and the Strasburg Betterment Corp., which was instrumental in building a nursing home and cheese plant in the town.

He also turned to local politics, serving two terms as county treasurer and a partial term as Strasburg mayor, being elected as a write-in in 1947. He said he was approached to run for the mayoral spot but had told those people that he couldn’t afford to spend money on a campaign. “They told me I wouldn’t have to. They said, ‘We’ll elect you,’” he recalls.

One township that was totally Catholic gave him all of its 16 votes, he notes.

That mayoral term was the end of his political career - or so he thought - until 1978. It was then that Borr ran for mayor again, pulling nearly every vote cast.

At age 76, Borr still is active, still working in the Betterment Corp. and helping as mayor to run the community. He says he doesn’t plan to run again, but if he’s drafted – well, Borr is not one to turn down a challenge.

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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