When we think of dividend stocks, we tend to think of the large, stable companies such as Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG) and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ). These blue chips are in the news every day and have powered portfolios for decades.

But neither P&G nor J&J are among the top five or 10 best dividend payers of the last decade (as measured by total return). In fact, the largest company in the top 10 is $11 billion asset management firm Legg Mason -- and it's No. 10. The No. 1 dividend payer is $1.9 billion office REIT Corporate Office Properties Trust (NYSE:OFC).

Five surprising returns
To make this list, the companies all had to be paying dividends in 1996 and this year, and they had to have a current yield greater than 1%. Without further ado, here are the top five:


Total Return

Corporate Office Properties Trust


BP Prudhoe Bay Royalty Trust (NYSE:BPT)


MDC Holdings (NYSE:MDC)


San Juan Basin Royalty Trust (NYSE:SJT)


Harbor Florida Bancshares (NASDAQ:HARB)


Data provided by Capital IQ. Performance from Aug. 8, 1996, to Aug. 8, 2006.

None of these companies currently has a market cap of more than $2 billion, although given the debt employed by Corporate Office Properties Trust and MDC Holdings, those two clock in with enterprise values approaching $3 billion.

As you may have already guessed, that means that all of these companies were small caps (meaning they had a market cap under $1 billion) a decade ago. But the fact that they paid dividends didn't hamper their growth -- and it rewarded investors with payouts even when the market was volatile.

Are any of these worth investing in now?
The list above has three trusts (one REIT and two royalty trusts), and since trusts have seen quite a run-up in the past five years, I'd be cautious when considering those three companies for investment. Harbor Florida Bancshares is also out of the running -- it's being acquired by Income Investor selection National City.

That leaves us with homebuilder MDC Holdings, which, like many homebuilders, has seen its shares nearly cut in half this year. The company also trades for a P/E of 4 and a price-to-book of less than 1. The housing market may be in for more of a fall, but that is a combination worthy of further research -- particularly when the company sports a meaty 2.3% dividend yield.

The dividend wrap-up
It's not a complete surprise that the best returns among dividend payers would come from smaller companies. In fact, it's precisely what I expected, since it's easier for smaller businesses to grow at high growth rates for periods of five to 10 years.

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At the time of publication, Nathan Parmelee had no financial interest in any of the companies mentioned. Johnson & Johnson is an Income Investor recommendation. The Fool has a disclosure policy.