Strung along the east bank of the Fox River, these row houses recall an important chapter in Wisconsin labor history—a bitter strike at the Paine Lumber Company and the firm’s subsequent experiment in corporate paternalism. The company was established in 1853, in an era when the smokestacks of sawmills, sash and door companies, and furniture factories lined the banks of the Fox River. By 1908, Paine had become the world’s largest sash and door manufacturer. It employed more than 2,200 people at its peak in 1929. Many of Paine’s workers lived in these company-owned row houses, which owed their origins to violent labor strife. In 1898, local woodworkers engaged in a fourteen-week-long, industry-wide strike for a minimum wage of $1.50 per day, the abolition of labor by women and girls (with whom the industry replaced men, at much lower wages), a weekly pay-day, and recognition of the Amalgamated Woodworkers union. The lumber company imported scabs, primarily German Russians, who were enticed to stay by adopting a new policy of corporate paternalism. These recruits made up a large part of the company’s workforce in the early twentieth century.
The key component of Paine’s paternalism was the construction of attractive company-owned employee housing, begun during the 1898 strike. The present row houses, built in 1925, replaced the original structures. The company generally reserved these houses for new arrivals, who were allowed to live there until they could purchase or rent a larger house. Thus, the houses became an important corporate tool for attracting new workers, helping them get settled, and winning their loyalty. The row house complex consists of six identical buildings constructed of stucco-covered concrete block in a vernacular Craftsman style. Each two-and-a-half-story unit encompasses six row houses, defined by a mix of front-gabled and shed roofs and by three shared front stoops.
The Paine Thrift Bank at 1621 Congress Avenue, which company president Nathan Paine established in 1925, was a second component of the corporate welfare program. It helped workers obtain the credit they needed to purchase houses and other consumer items, but it also helped the company recapture much of the wages it paid out to workers. The bank was designed by the premier Oshkosh architectural firm of Auler and Jensen and was built by C. R. Meyer Construction Company. The one-story granite bank is Beaux-Arts classical, conveying conservatism and solidity. Ionic columns frame its large round-arched windows. The central entrance is especially ornate where a cartouche carved with the Paine crest enriches the foliated stone molding surrounding the double doors. The Paine factory complex, now mostly demolished, was located across Congress Avenue from the bank, within easy walking distance of the workers’ row houses.