The Paine Furniture Building
After a stint as Nelson’s Mammoth Store, 313 South Broadway housed the funeral and furniture business for more than a century.
Everything has changed since the 1879 grand opening of the Palace Block—better known today as the Paine Furniture Building. Everything except for the timeless appeal to your consideration of new wares.
Today, the building is an empty Broadway storefront with the best French Second Empire facade in the state—a community ancestor with enough majestically corniced rooftop to retain its title as boss of the block, bar none.
A. Nelson’s Mammoth Store
Back in the late 1870s, A. Nelson’s Mammoth Store was a regular Macy’s of the prairie. A poster has survived of the day it opened, and it’s a frontier handbill that looks a little like an official invitation to the hanging of a horse thief. Do not be fooled. This was an hour to rejoice.
“I have a full line at prices that defy competition,” it’s owner, Andrew Nelson, declared in swaggering Wild West typeset. “The Grandest, the Largest, the Finest and the Most Complete Store in the State” carried “the Finest Stock of Carpets,” as well as “departments” for dresses, tailoring, fabrics, coats, gloves, hats, hosiery, and of course yarn.
“The Fur Department is not neglected” he added. Pelts carried: “Ladies and Children’s Furs,” including “Buffalo, Coon Skin, and Bear Skin Coats.” Yes, you heard that correctly, early Rochester school children were sent out into the cold wearing bear.
Thanks to a lithograph, we know that an artist imagined men with top hats and ladies with parasols hitching their carriages to 313 South Broadway, a dignified parade of dandies that would fit right in on Park Avenue.
And Nelson was able to bring that store to Rochester thanks to the same things that often make people rich: hard work, connections, and marriage.
A Norwegian immigrant who arrived by way of Wisconsin, young Andrew Nelson had toiled for the town’s first banker, John Cook, the man who would call in the loans that destroyed town founder George Head.
Prior to Head’s unwinding, Andrew Nelson had married Dora Neilson, one of the four Neilson girls, two of whom—Henrietta and Sophia—would marry Head. (It’s complicated.)
So as brother-in-law to Head and former employee to the banker Cook, the hardworking Nelson secured the $8,000 needed to build the 44-by-80-foot building on land newly cleared by fire, when he opened his store then set about helping to build up the city we know today.
Nelson had, beginning in 1872, served the first of his many terms as alderman, a post he would hold for the next 14 years. The Palace Block acted as the early meeting hall following the devastating tornado of 1883, offering beds and food for the homeless at the hand of W.W. Mayo and Sister Mary Alfred Moes (and various additions to the structure lead some historians to date the Paine section of the building to 1885).
The building was Nelson’s place of business during a stint as mayor of Rochester beginning in 1887. As mayor, Nelson was pilloried as a wasteful spender, according to Old College Street, The Historic Heart of Rochester, Minnesota, by Ken Allsen. His crime: bringing indoor plumbing and natural gas to the town.
By 1901, Nelson would be gone, the department store having been long since converted into a carpet shop. Nelson left the store to his son Laurence, and like many sons do, the firstborn went in search of his own dream, selling 313 South Broadway and leaving Rochester for carpet dreams in Minneapolis.
Funerals and Furniture
Thus begins a 104-year run of one Paine Furniture, a legacy retailer in Rochester set in motion after young Francis Joseph Paine, 34, partnered with a Franklin Yost and opened Paine & Yost Furniture and Undertaking. With $3,000 down, the pair opened their doors the day before Thanksgiving in 1902.
Teddy Roosevelt was president, and Paine Furniture was selling caskets as well as furniture. Death and dining tables—it was a common business model of the period, one that turned around estate-procured wares alongside new products. The enterprise would surely draw stares today—we now separate the handling of corpses from baby carriages.
And baby carriages were very popular items at Paine Furniture, proudly displayed in the store’s 18-foot-high, heavy French plate glass, chandelier-lit windows. Paine bought out Yost in 1908, and the building grew wider and deeper.
None of which tells us much about Paine himself, a mysterious figure who seems to have come into the furniture business by accident and who harbored enough, well, pain, to type out the beginnings of a hardscrabble memoir in a little-known, quixotic, and somewhat testy document housed at Olmsted County Historical Society.
“The story of F.J. Paine has never been told to anyone and never will,” it begins. “Representatives of New York and Milwaukee magazines have come to Rochester many a time to get the story of this boy, but I never gave it to them. And I’ll never give it to the Post-Bulletin.”
Cedric Paine, grandson of Francis J. Paine, isn’t familiar with the document, which is alternately written in first and second person. Nor can the Olmsted County Historical Society explain where they got it.
But it is a poignant humanizing of young F.J. Paine, who, according to the document, was “a Canadian farm boy who left home when he was nine to make his way in the world,” and “who winces when he recalls all the grief in his life.”
Though it says his father was educated at Oxford, Paine left school in the second grade and for two decades carried around the only dollar ever given to him. In it Paine recalls hauling oats for 15 miles in the snow as a young boy, and in 20-below weather. “I never rode in the sleigh.”
But Fred Paine sold more than a few baby carriages, as did his son and grandson. From 1902 until 2006, the store was operated by a Paine, with Francis ceding control to son Albert, and Albert to Cedric, who operated it from 1975 until 2006.
When the store closed in 2006—with an “Emergency Sell-off Sale” followed by a “Retirement Sale” followed by a “Going Out of Business” sale—Rochesterites of all ages shared stories of memorable customer service in letters to the editor of the Post-Bulletin.
Cedric Paine, Francis’ grandson, didn’t want any fanfare.
“We just want to fade away quietly,” he said at the time.
After sitting empty for eight years, today the Paine building is jointly owned by local developers Hal and Holly Henderson and Grant and Kari Michaelitz, who bought property for $1.7 million in 2014. Their plans for the building—which is not, except for the facade, protected by any historical preservation ordinance—are uncertain, though, in January, they applied for a permit to build a skyway linking the building with the 318 Commons building on First Ave. SW.
The building’s history, though, still helps define Rochester.
Today, the head of a moose—shot by a young F.J Paine, the boy who left home at nine and saved the only dollar he had ever been given—hangs over the bar at Forager, the Kutzky Park brewpub.