Researching Local History
The rich heritage of the sister villages of Oak Park and River Forest can be traced in the collection of The Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest.
Since the Historical Society first opened its Museum and Research Center in 1970, our ever-growing holdings of artifacts, photos, books, manuscripts, maps, family papers, organization and business records, and ephemera have shed light on the history of the communities to thousands of curious researchers interested in everything from pioneer settlers to the Fair Housing and diversity issues of more recent times.
For short histories of River Forest and Oak Park, see Explore Local History.
Below is a brief overview of some of the materials of most value to those researching local history in Oak Park and River Forest.
Do you want to see the table used in the last tavern operated in Oak Park before a self-imposed century of temperance? Or the key used by River Forest founding father Ashbel Steele in his home near the Desplaines River? Or a painting by the founding president of the Oak Park Art League? Or first-edition copies of books written by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs?
A limited selection of three-dimensional items used by local people in their homes, schools, workplaces, and during their leisure time is on display in our Museum; most items are in storage. By prior appointment we can pull items from storage for research projects.
Books and Printed Material
There are several overall histories of our villages, including:
(see more books about local history)
Holdings also include anniversary and commemorative publications of churches and other religious institutions, schools, fraternal and social clubs; community cookbooks; architectural guidebooks to local historic districts; school yearbooks; directories; and ephemera (playbills and programs, menus, posters, handbills, etc.).
The Society also maintains a collection of printed local, county, and regional collective biographies that include biographical sketches of local residents. These range from 19th century "mug books" and "who’s who"-type publications, to recent works like Women Building Chicago, 1790–1990: A Biographical Dictionary (2001).
Government Documents and Reports
The Historical Society has a large collection of local government documents from 19th century printed reports of the Town of Cicero (Oak Park was part of Cicero Township until 1901) to the present. These include annual reports of the village of Oak Park; revised codes; publications and reports of units of local government including parks, schools, police & fire, zoning, and finance.
Maps, Atlases, and Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
Oak Park and River Forest Sanborn Fire Insurance maps for the following years: 1895, 1908, 1930, 1948, 1951, and 1968; and for River Forest only for 1961. These illustrate the location, footprint and building materials used for houses and buildings street by street.
Other specific maps include Cicero and Proviso Township subdivision maps, early subdivision maps, the Oak Park Yaryan Central Heating System Map, city directory maps, and a variety of other maps from the two villages from the 19th century to present.
- Oak Leaves, 1902 to early 1990s. Bound volumes; some missing issues (articles are clipped from Oak Leaves and Wednesday Journal newspapers to the present).
- Forest Leaves, 1914 to 1922, 1935, and most years from October 1940 through 1991. Bound volumes.
- The Trapeze, student newspaper at Oak Park and River Forest High School, 1912–1998 on microfilm.
- Incomplete and scattered holdings of other local newspapers including the Oak Park Reporter, 1887–1890; Vindicator, 1899–1901; Oak Park Argus, 1900–1902; and the Oak Parker, 1920s and 1930s.
Oral Histories and Interviews
- Tapes and transcripts of several dozen interviews conducted by local author Lee Brooke for his numerous local history publications.
- Veterans’ Interviews. Videotaped interviews with 12 World War II veterans conducted in 2004–2005. DVD format.
- An Oak Park Story series, an "ethnographic exploration of a Chicago suburb" by Jay Ruby, Oak Park and River Forest High School graduate and emeritus Temple University anthropologist. Five volumes, 2005–2006, DVD and CD-Rom. The collection also includes supporting materials and research documents from this project.
- Historical Society Oral History Project. Interviews with 45 longtime residents, conducted between 1970 and 1989. Reel-to-reel and cassette tapes.
Organization and Business Records
The Society has become the records repository for dozens of local organizations and some businesses. These records take many forms, but generally include some combination of minute books, scrapbooks, photos, correspondence, financial data, and ephemera. Organizations include—but are not limited to—service clubs, fraternal and benevolent organizations, literary and musical societies, veterans’ groups, social clubs, and local businesses.
Selected List of Collections
- Nineteenth Century Club (cultural and philanthropic club)
- Rotary Club of Oak Park and River Forest
- Garden Club of Oak Park and River Forest
- Nakama Club (women’s club)
- River Forest Service Club
- League of Women Voters of Oak Park and River Forest
- North Oak Park Women’s Club
- Oak Park Board of Realtors (c. 1920–1980)
- Village Manager Association (local political organization)
- Oak Park Trust and Savings Bank
- Collection includes thousands of photographs and hundreds of postcards organized by street, subject, name of person, organization/group.
- Promotional photo books from the late 19th to the early 20th century contain historic photos of residences and buildings and often including the owner’s name at the time the photo was taken. Some examples are Picturesque Oak Park (c. 1888), Album of Oak Park Views (1893), Oak Park 1896, Halley’s Pictorial Oak Park (1898), Oak Park Beautiful (1907), Glimpses of Oak Park (1912), River Forest—A Village of Homes (c. 1915), and River Forest Land Association Beautiful, Substantial Houses (c. 1915). Philander Barclay Photo Collection. Seven binders contain over one thousand photos taken or collected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by local historian Philander Barclay (1878–1940).
For more than 30 years, Historical Society staff and volunteers have clipped the local and regional newspapers and created a subject file of local topics. These range from "hot button" issues like gun control to timeless subjects like schools and parks.