In 1835, Joseph Kettlestrings, an immigrant from England, purchased 172 acres (70 ha) of land just west of Chicago for a farm and their home. Once their children were born, they moved to Chicago for the schools in 1843, and moved back again in 1855 to build a more substantial home a bit east on their quarter section of land. More farmers and settlers had entered the area. Their land was called by several names locally, including Oak Ridge. When the first post office was set up, it could not use the name Oak Ridge as another post office was using that name in Illinois, so the post office chose Oak Park, and that name became the name for the settlement as it grew, and for the town when it incorporated in 1902.
By 1850, the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad (after that, the Chicago & Northwestern and now Union Pacific) was constructed as far as Elgin, Illinois, and passed through the settlement area. In the 1850s the land on which Oak Park sits was part of the new Chicago suburb, the town of Cicero. The population of the area boomed during the 1870s, with Chicago residents resettling in Cicero following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the expansion of railroads and street cars to the area. "In 1872, when Oak Park received its own railroad depot on the Chicago and Northwestern Railway, its rapid emergence as a residential suburb of Chicago began. In 1877, the railroad was running thirty-nine trains daily between Oak Park and Chicago; in the subsequent year, more railroads and street car lines, with increased service, came to link Oak Park and Chicago. As Chicago grew from a regional center to a national metropolis Oak Park expanded – from 500 residents in 1872 to 1,812 in 1890, to 9,353 in 1900, to 20,911 in 1910, to 39,585 in 1920. Oak Park thus emerged as a leading Chicago suburb."
A review of Oak Park's history by Wiss, Janny, Elstner Associates in 2006 further explains the importance of railroads and street cars in the development of Oak Park:
As suburban residential development continued in the 1880s and 1890s, streetcars and elevated trains supplemented the original main line steam railroads to connect Oak Park commuters to jobs in downtown Chicago. One of the first streetcar lines was the Chicago, Harlem, & Batavia “dummy” line, which ran approximately along the present-day route of the Eisenhower Expressway. The “dummy” trains used a miniature steam locomotive with a false cladding designed to conceal most of the moving parts and avoid startling horses. This line first began operation in 1881, but did not provide direct commuter service to downtown Chicago until June 1888. A more extensive streetcar network throughout Oak Park was opened in 1890. In the future village of Oak Park, this system ran east-west on Madison Street and Lake Street, with a north-south connection on Harlem Avenue. Streetcar service was discontinued in 1947, to be replaced by buses.
The Lake Street Elevated Railroad (today’s CTA Green Line) was extended into Oak Park in 1899–1901, although the trains ran at ground level until the 1960s. The Metropolitan West Side Elevated Railroad (today’s CTA Blue Line) was extended into Oak Park in 1905, providing local service over tracks originally placed by the Chicago Aurora & Elgin electric interurban train. The “Met” line moved onto new tracks along the Congress (Eisenhower) Expressway in 1958.
The Village of Oak Park was formally established in 1902, disengaging from Cicero following a referendum. According to the local historical society, "The period 1892–1950 saw the construction of almost all of the housing stock in Oak Park, and most of the village's current buildings." The village population grew quickly, and "by 1930, the village had a population of 64,000, even larger than the current population", while cherishing a reputation as the "World's Largest Village." Chicago grew rapidly in the 19th century, recording 4,470 residing in the 1840 Census in the place so recently a fur trading post, reaching 1,099,850 in 1890, and then 1,698,575 in 1900, passing Philadelphia to the number two spot in the US, and in that year, the fifth largest in the world. Chicago was well located on the shores of Lake Michigan for transport; after the fire of 1871, Chicago rebuilt its center and exploded with new ideas; Oak Park grew along with its neighbor to the east, having location and railroad and street car connections in its favor.
After World War II, "Oak Park was affected by larger developmental trends in the Chicago Metropolitan area. The construction of the Eisenhower Expressway cut through the southern portion of the Village in the mid 1950s. Starting in the 1960s and 1970s, Oak Park has made a conscious effort to accommodate changing demographics and social pressures while maintaining the suburban character that has long made the Village a desirable residential location. Beginning in the 1960s, Oak Park faced the issue of racial integration with effective programs to maintain the character and stability of the Village, while encouraging integration on racial basis. This was perhaps the greatest challenge to Oak Park, which some judge it has met with success, see #Demographics. Population fell from the peak level, primarily from smaller average household size, including a rise in one-person households.
Oak Park has a history of alcohol prohibition. When the village was incorporated, no alcohol was allowed to be sold within its village limits. This law was relaxed in 1973, when restaurants and hotels were allowed to serve alcohol with meals, and was further loosened in 2002, when select grocery stores received governmental permission to sell packaged liquor. Now alcohol, such as beer and wine, is easily accessible.
In 1889, Frank Lloyd Wright and his wife settled in Oak Park. He built many homes and the Unity Temple, his own church, in the village, before he left in 1911 to settle in Wisconsin. Oak Park attracts architecture buffs and others to view the many Frank Lloyd Wright designed homes found in the village, alongside homes reflecting other architectural styles. The largest collection of Wright-designed residential properties in the world is in Oak Park. A distinct focus on historic preservation of important architectural styles began in the 1970s and continues, with many buildings marked as historically significant, and so far, three historic districts defined. Other attractions include Ernest Hemingway's birthplace home and his boyhood home, the Ernest Hemingway Museum, the three Oak Park homes of writer and Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, Wright's Unity Temple, Pleasant Home, and the Oak Park-River Forest Historical Society.
Oak Park and River Forest High School is a comprehensive college preparatory school, with a long list of alumni who have made major or notable contributions to their fields of endeavor. Among these are Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway, football Hall-of-Famer George Trafton, McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, city planner Walter Burley Griffin, comedian Kathy Griffin, basketball player Iman Shumpert, and the voice of iconic cartoon character Homer Simpson, Dan Castellaneta.