The Legacy of John D. Philbrick

He’s the “Philbrick” of Philbrick-James Library, and he dedicated his life to education and the improvement in schools.  From his humble beginnings as the son of a third-generation Deerfield farmer, he went on to distinguish himself as Superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, then a member of the Massachusetts Board of Education and the National Council of Education, and of the Government of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  He was hard-working, literate, ambitious and energetic, and accumulated a remarkable number of awards and honors over the course of his lifetime, including the degree of LL.D. from Bates College in 1872, and from St. Andrews University, Scotland, in 1879, Chevalier of the Legion of Honor and the Gold Palm of the University of France.  

“He was perfectly regular in his business habits, and very systematic, being always ready to hear every one that approached him. There was no need of ceremony or delay. His reply always came instantly, and plainly, and good naturedly. He loved to praise rather than to blame. Still he never flattered any one.”  This from Dean Dudley, who worked for Philbrick for many years and was a distant relative on his mother’s side.  During his life until his death in 1886, he was highly regarded and respected as an authority on matters of educational reform, and for his efforts to persuade the leading educators in the country to realize the value of art education.  (We could use a man like him today.)

John’s great-grandfather, James Philbrick, had cleared the land back when the town of Deerfield was first being settled.  His grandfather, Moses Dudley, loved books and devoted himself to acquiring and reading them.  The Dudleys were prominent in the early days of New England as governors, lawyers, ministers and judges.  His mother Elizabeth (Betsey) was described as “a woman of strong mind, well-informed, with determined will, with definite opinions and the power of expressing them.”  Her son inherited the greatest strengths of both sides of the family.

Born in 1818, John D. Philbrick began his life working hard on the family’s farm on Middle Road in Deerfield, but then was allowed to go to Pembroke Academy, a sacrifice at a time when a young man’s labor was needed on the farm, and an expensive one; school fees were not cheap.  A young uncle who was attending the academy took him in, which helped with expenses.  He divided his time between his studies and home, where he was needed to help out after the untimely death of his elder brother Peter.  Through determined effort, he was ultimately accepted at Dartmouth College.

Despite his eventual move to Boston and his rise to importance and notoriety, he never forgot his home town.  With Frederick P. James, also a Deerfield native who had moved on and done well (more on him next time), Philbrick proposed to establish a library for the benefit of the citizens of Deerfield.  James supplied $1,000 of seed money, and Philbrick chose the books.  Hence the Philbrick-James Library.  Although we are celebrating the centennial of the building which houses the current library, built in 1914, the collection was given to the town by John D. Philbrick and Frederick P. James in 1880.

Philbrick returned home to be buried.  His monument on the family plot is easily seen from Rte. 43 just north of the fairgrounds.  His grave, and that of his wife, Julia, are marked by a tall obelisk, flanked by those of his family.

Sources: "History of the Dudley Family" by Dean Dudley.  Wakefield, Mass.: Dean Dudley, Publisher, 1886
“A Memorial of the Life and Services of John D. Philbrick” by Larkin Dunton.
Boston, Mass.: New England Publishing Company, 1888
“Tales of Old Deerfield” by Joanne Wasson. Concord, NH: Joanne Wasson, Publisher, 1964


John D. Philbrick


Philbrick monument and family stones: John Dudley Philbrick and wife Julia Putnam Philbrick with Elizabeth Philbrick (sister), Betsey Dudley Philbrick (mother), Peter Philbrick (father), Peter H. Philbrick (brother).