One never knows what gems lie hidden only slightly out of sight. When traveling due west from Colorado Springs, the principal road that leads through the foothills of the Rockies is US Highway 24, which was built along Ute Pass, a natural east-west corridor used by Utes and various other Indigenous tribes for millenia. The hamlet of Cascade just west of Manitou Springs straddles the highway and one of its properties is accessed by a nondescript driveway on the north side. Nondescript except for a small sign posted at the turn-off from the road which reads Holy Cross Novitiate, and which had always piqued my interest.
As many of you know, I love regional history and museums and while taking a tour of the Ute Pass History Park run by the Ute Pass Historical Society in Woodland Park about 20 miles west of Colorado Springs a number of years back, I learned with alacrity that the society organizes visits to the site in question every three years. I immediately signed up. This was four years ago (where, oh where does time go?) and on July 15, 2018, I joined other visitors at Ute Pass Elementary School near Cascade for an introduction. From there we were ferried in an orange school bus to the spot along the busy road that millions have passed but only thousands have seen with their own eyes.
Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak region have attracted individuals from all walks of life and knowing that princes, paupers, and presidents have journeyed to and through the area, I wasn’t too surprised to learn of yet another industrial giant who had bought land for himself and his family in these environs.
Thomas Cusack (1858-1926) epitomizes the rags-to-riches story. He was born in Ireland and brought to the US by his parents as a three-year-old boy. When he and his younger brother were orphaned six years later, they were taken in by family in Chicago. Thomas became a sign painter and later ran his own shop, painting signs and carriages. It eventually grew into the largest outdoor advertising business in the country and Thomas became known as the “Billboard King of Chicago.” He also served on Chicago’s Board of Education and as a Democratic U.S. Representative from Illinois for one term.
Thomas started visiting Colorado in the 1880s. His personal life was overshadowed by more loss when his first wife and daughter died during childbirth in 1890. Five years later, he married Mary Greene who first came to Colorado with him on their honeymoon. During one of their trips up Ute Pass, she fell in love with a small cottage, Rockhaven, which then belonged to a couple from California. The Cusacks purchased and renamed it Elinor Cottage, after Thomas’s deceased infant daughter from his first marriage. It became the growing family’s summer home for many years to come.
Decades later, Thomas was finally realizing his dream to build a mansion on their Colorado property adjacent to Elinor Cottage. When Mary died of cancer in 1922 during its construction, he named it Marigreen Pines in her honor. He personally designed and furbished the house with luxury materials acquired in both the US and Europe. At his retirement in 1924, his business sold for $24 million. Alas, pneumonia cut his life short a mere two years later. The family continued to own and live at the estate until 1978, when they donated it to the Congregation of the Holy Cross in South Bend, Indiana. It became a retreat center for novices enrolled at the Moreau Seminary of Notre Dame University who are considering priesthood. The gift stipulated that the Ute Pass Historical Society be allowed access to the property for one weekend every three years in order to conduct public tours.
It was thanks to this stipulation that my curiosity about Marigreen Pines was finally satisfied on this day four years ago when I was allowed to enter the mysterious driveway and explore the beautiful, serene setting and the various buildings which were once so meaningful to the Cusack family and have since then been meaningful to many in trying to figure out their lives’ purpose, incidentally a quest I’m still on. Is anybody else?