Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Amazing Life of Chicagoan, Thomas Cusack, Billboard Baron and Illinois' 4th district U.S. Congressman.

Thomas Cusack
Illinois Political Directory, 1899.
Thomas Cusack of Chicago was born in Kilrush, County Clare, Ireland, on October 5, 1858, and died in Oak Park, Illinois on November 19, 1926. He was a pioneer and entrepreneur in the outdoor advertising industry and a politician, serving as a Democratic U.S. Representative from Illinois' 4th District from 1899 to 1901. In 1905, he resided at 393 Ashland Boulevard (810 S. Ashland Avenue, today) in Chicago.

Cusack immigrated with his family to New York City from Ireland in 1861 when he was a young boy. Shortly after the move, his parents died, leaving Thomas and his younger brother orphaned. 

Thomas was raised by relatives in Chicago, where he received his education and learned how to paint, a skill that would ultimately make him a very wealthy man.

In 1875, at the age of 17, Cusack established his own sign painting business, the Thomas Cusack Company, in Chicago, with only a paint pot and brush and his remarkable personality as assets.
The business consisted in painting advertising signs on the sides of buildings in a small way. Gradually, he took to building billboards of his own, and leasing suitable walls and other locations for outdoor advertisements, making him a pioneer in advertising.
Thomas Cusack and Company
The business soon grew to be very profitable, leasing over 100,000 billboards and advertising spaces and turning Cusack into a prosperous and influential Chicagoan.
Wilson Distilling Company’s advertisement on a Madison and Wabash
building in 1895. Produced by the Thomas Cusack Co.
Billboards on Park Row (11th St.) on the east side of Michigan Ave., Chicago, 1910.
In addition to business savvy, Cusack had a strong sense of civic duty. In 1890, Hempstead Washburne, Mayor of Chicago, appointed the "billboard baron" to a seat on the city's school board. Cusack's fervent support of public education drew the attention of Progressive Party Illinois Governor John P. Altgeld, who invited Cusack to serve on his general staff.

In 1898, Cusack was elected to his first and only term in the United States Congress from the 4th District of Illinois (1899-1901). After his term, Cusack decided to return his attention primarily to his outdoor advertising business, which had grown considerably in size to more than one hundred offices and was producing an annual revenue of over $20 million. 
Thomas Cusack and Company, 15th and Throop Streets, Chicago.
Cusack was well-known for his fair labor practices and amicable relationships with his employees and was most proud of the fact that, in a city known for labor strikes, his workers never walked off the job.
Thomas Cusack and Company Offices in New York, NY.
In his day as a sign painter, Cusack remembered getting $8 a week in wages. By the time he sold his business to a New York banking syndicate in 1924, he was paying his workers $10 to $15 a day.
A Ghost sign - Marigold Margarine on Lincoln Ave and Lawrence, Chicago.
Thomas Cusack Co.
A Ghost Sign - Location Unknown - Thomas Cusack Co.
At the pinnacle of his success in business, Thomas Cusack bought the entire unincorporated town of Cascade, Colorado which is 5 miles as the birds fly to the east and about 15 miles of trail travel to get to the Ute Pass in the Rocky Mountains. In the 1920s he hired architects and contractors to build a plush mansion nestled in the Ute Pass, which he named "Marigreen Pines" in memory of his wife, Mary Greene Cusack
Marigreen Pines, at the Ute Pass in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
Having lived through the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 and experienced so many early losses in his life, Cusack built Marigreen Pines out of brick, marble, and concrete to safeguard his family from harm. Marigreen Pines became a much-loved mountain home for Cusack and his family, where he routinely and graciously hosted many friends and relatives, engaging them in lively conversation and debate.

Thomas Cusack died on November 19, 1926, at the age of 68. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Evanston, Illinois. 

In 1979, Cusack's last surviving daughter, Anne Cusack, donated Marigreen Pines in Ute Pass, Colorado, to the Congregation of Holy Cross to serve as their novitiate (a place housing religious novices).
Thomas Cusack Co. Example, Year and Location Unknown.
Thomas Cusack Co. Example, Year and Location Unknown.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

4 comments:

  1. Great story!! There is so much to take away from Cusack's life...use the skills you were born with, treat others with respect, overcome adversity to name a few. I started the article knowing nothing about Thomas Cusack and now I can't wait to discover more!

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  2. This was a good read, thanks for posting. Love these old time painted wall advertising.

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  3. Great story, we (as a southside family) keep trying to see how we were related to Thomas as our "Cusack's" also came from Ireland to New York and eventually settled in same 30th and Ashland neighborhood. When I was in High School I decided to major in graphic arts and started as a lettering artist (in 1970) and ended up with a degree and a career in commercial art, so I'm laying claim that we were related.

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  4. Pretty neat finding this as he was my great-grandfather. Great work.

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