“Growing up on Payne Avenue was like living in a small town,” former resident DeAnne Cherry once wrote. “My family knew all the merchants and Payne Avenue was where we spent our money.” While this remembrance dealt with the area's life in the 1950’s, the story goes back to a time before Minnesota became a state. Like many other streets, it is named after an early resident, but in this case there is a somewhat unusual story.
In 1856, thirty-eight year old Rice W. Payne of Virgina set out on a trip to see the western frontier and ended up in Saint Paul. He liked the bustling city enough to purchase twenty acres of land on the East Side. He never really settled in the city and after a short time returned home. When the Civil War began, he became a major in the Army of Northern Virginia. Local lore says that this led to the confiscation of his land in Minnesota, but the street was never renamed.
Payne Avenue slowly became a major commercial location that housed a variety of stores serving the immigrant families of the area including Scandinavians, Italians and Germans and others. By the early 1900’s the street was filled with Italian restaurants and stores, including Morelli’s Market, which still operates on Lower Payne Avenue.
At first the street only ran north from Minnehaha and did not directly connect to East Seventh. In the early 1930’s Payne Avenue was extended into its current configuration by taking the place of a street named Decatur. It was around this time that Yarusso’s, another local landmark, was established.
One of the oldest and most well-known St. Paul street fairs is the Harvest Festival. The East Side Commercial Club, a local group inaugurated the Payne Avenue Street Fair and Carnival in 1906 as a way to attract business. They published a souvenir booklet highlighting the contributions of community leaders who they called the “brains and sinew of this district.” A few years ago the event was cancelled because of financial difficulties, but recently the East Side tradition came to life again.
Payne Avenue has gone through many transitions since its initial settlement. At first, people walked its streets or travelled by horse and buggy. By the 1880‘s streetcars zoomed along and the avenue on both sides was filled with storefronts that catered to people’s every need. Today automobiles and busses are the main form of transportation and businesses that serve old and new groups that shop along the old streetcar route. As is the case in cities, things are always changing, but the new Payne Avenue still fulfills its historic role.