Rachel Berlinski, operations manager of the OPRF History Museum, hosted an “Ask the Historians” video on rock ‘n’ roll bands with roots in Oak Park and River Forest, like The American Breed, which had a Billboard Top-10 hit “Bend Me, Shape Me” in 1968. | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

Like everyone else, the Oak Park River Forest Historical Society found itself in need of new ways of connecting with the world when COVID-19 shut down in-person events.  So, Executive Director Frank Lipo and Operations Manager Rachel Berlinski turned to the internet to reach their audience. 

While he Oak Park River Forest Museum is again open to visitors and offers live programming, Lipo says the use of the internet to reach a wider audience probably won’t wane. 

They discovered that recording videos on YouTube allowed them to expand their reach and make a live archive of stories that tell the history of Oak Park and River Forest. 

The pair came up with two series of short videos that they post on YouTube. On the third Thursday of the month, they post an “Inside OPRF Museum” video, which focuses on a current exhibit or interesting artifact in the museum. On the last Friday of the month, they post an “Ask the Historians” video, which delves into a question on village history.

“It’s reaching people right in their living rooms,” Lipo said of the videos, which are roughly 20 minutes long and not highly produced. “It’s really a conversation.”

October’s “Ask the Historians” featured architect and former Oak Park resident Bill Dring on the Continental Divide in Oak Park. Lipo notes that Dring grew up near Taylor Park, where the ridge caused by the divide was quite evident. 

The OPRF Museum’s “Ask the Historian” video for October featured former Oak Parker Bill Dring, who as a boy convinced the Rotary Club to fund signs marking the Continental Divide and who, as an adult, recently granted money to the museum to replace them with new signs. | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

As a boy, Dring was curious about the Continental Divide and wrote a letter to the newspaper about it. Someone from the Rotary Club saw his letter, and the club decided to fund markers for the Continental Divide in multiple locations in Oak Park.

Dring moved to Colorado after he and his wife raised their family in Oak Park, and on a visit back to the village in 2020, he noticed that the signs were a bit worse for wear. He gave a grant to the Oak Park History Museum to redo the signs and offered to be a part of an “Ask the Historians” video about the Continental Divide in Oak Park.

The OPRF History Museum’s collection includes a bass drum head that once belonged to the rock ‘n’ roll band The American Breed, signed by drummer Lee Graziano. | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

According to Lipo, the Continental Divide represents the former shoreline of ancient Lake Michigan. For centuries, the land between Oak Park and Chicago was a marshy area. Water east of the ridge of the Continental Divide would flow towards Lake Michigan, and water west of the ridge would flow towards the Des Plaines River.

“Ask the Historians” is made to share little stories like these, said Lipo.

 “We don’t always think about the geography before we lived here, when Native Americans lived here, but it’s pretty cool to have this geographic feature right here,” he added.

Other short topics covered by the series have included a look into why the lots on Home Avenue south of Madison Street are oddly configured. In another, Berlinski looks into rock ‘n’ roll bands and rock stars with roots in Oak Park and River Forest. OPRF History Museum volunteer Frank Fiorito investigated an end-of-the-world cult and its connection to Oak Park.

On Thursday, Nov.18 at 11 a.m. Historical Society President Peggy Sinko will be featured on “Inside OPRF Museum” sharing her collection of Oak Park commemorative spoons, which feature scenes of the village. Those wishing to participate in this or future Zooms, can contact the historical society at oprfmuseum.org/contact

Lipo says that there’s a utility in continuing to offer the events via Zoom with recordings on YouTube. 

“Even though we’re open now, we want to continue this at least through 2022,” Lipo said. “People from places like Joliet can attend, when they might not want to make a drive for an event.”

Hearing from former Oak Parkers like Dring is another benefit. Lipo notes that it would take quite a budget to fly in a speaker but by using technology, the expense is minimal. The reach of the video is an added bonus.

The OPRF History Museum’s collection also includes art depicting the early history of Oak Park and River Forest. | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

“We know that a lot of people love history, but a lot of people don’t know that yet until there’s a topic that interests them,” Lipo said. “This is about finding different ways to connect with people and delving into people’s varied interests. People have a connection, and all of a sudden, they appreciate it more.”

While those looking to research their own homes or families are encouraged to make an appointment for research at the museum, Lipo says “Ask the Historians” is a good venue for more general topics that touch the community.

Is there a certain topic about Oak Park or River Forest that you’d like to find out more about? If you have a question for the historians, contact the History Museum at oprfmuseum.org/contact

Join the discussion on social media!