Here's Your Sign
Why did Thomas Cusack paint his name on walls? And, why did he paint his name on one of our walls, far, far away from Cusack's home in Chicago, Illinois. Actually, Cusack didn't paint his name on the wall of a West Madison Street building. One of his legion of sign painters did. In the first two decades of the 20th Century, the Thomas Cusack Company was the leading outdoor advertising firm in the United States of America. And, today if you know where to look, you can find a remnant of the days long ago when billboards adorned the sides of buildings across the country and right here in Dublin, Georgia.
Thomas Cusack was born in County Clare, Ireland. At the age of three, Cusack immigrated to America, just in time for the Civil War. Orphaned at five years of age, Thomas learned how to paint. Determined to make a living at it, Cusack established his own sign painting business when he was only seventeen years old. A couple of years at St. Xavier's College would help him to learn the world of running a business of his own.
Cusack discovered early in his career that he could transform the bare, dead walls of buildings into colorful and enticing signs. And, he could make money, lots of money, too. As one of the couple of outdoor advertising pioneers, Cusack's influence in the city of Chicago rose.
In 1890, Mayor Hempstead Washburne appointed the billboard baron to a seat on the school board. Cusack, a fervent supporter of education for eight years - the last two as Vice-President of the Board, drew the attention of Illinois governor John. P. Altgeld, who named him as an aide-de-camp 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. Cusack remained active as a Democrat, attending several national conventions as a party delegate.
After only one term, Congressman Cusack decided to return to his outdoor advertising business, which had grown to more than a hundred offices with leases on more than one hundred thousand billboards around the country. His signs brought in more than twenty-three million dollars in gross annual income.
Thomas Cusack was known for his friendly relationships with his employees. He was most proud of the fact that in a city known for its labor union strikes, his workers never walked off the job. In his day as a sign painter himself, Thomas fondly remembered getting $8 a week in wages. When he sold his twenty-five-million dollar business to a New York banking syndicate in 1924, he was proud that he was paying his men, $10 to $15 a day.
At the pinnacle of his successes, Thomas Cusack bought the entire town of Cascade, Colorado at Ute Pass in the Rocky Mountains. The owners' threw in the 80-room Cascade Hotel, the 40-room Ramona Hotel, five cottages, a pavilion, a lake and his own personal waterfall. Cusack hired architects and contractors to transform his property into greatest mountain resort in the world by immediately adding a plush concrete hotel at a cost of more than one hundred thousand dollars. Cusack and his wife moved to their thousand-acre ranch to personally supervise the transformation. While he was in the West, Cusack planned to expand his operations to the West Coast and eventually to Europe.
Thomas Cusack died on November 19, 1926 at the age 0f 68. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Evanston, Illinois.
And now, the moment you have been waiting for. To find the Cusack Company sign, first find the old 1st National Bank skyscraper. Go west on Madison Street. When you get to Tim Knight's wildlife studio on the south side of the street, look on the west wall of the building. Sadly, the top tw0-thirds of a gorgeous crimson Coca-Cola sign has all but faded away. But, look closely at the lower right-hand corner of the brick billboard. And, there is where you see, still in its brilliant bold colors, "Thos. Cusack Co. Chicago " There's your sign!