James Birney Farnsworth was born in Westford, Vermont, the youngest of a family of five sons. At age twelve his family migrated to a farm in Ivanhoe in Lake County, Illinois.
In 1861 he enlisted in the 134th Regiment, Illinois Volunteers, Infantry Company 'F' of the Union Army. Due to his young age, his father held him out of combat. He did serve as a drummer and fife player. He later became a member of the Benjamin F. Butler Post, Grand Army of the Republic.
After the Civil War he married Alma Jeanette Putnam; and was employed as the Headmaster of the Lake Zurich Academy in Lake Zurich. Two years later, 1868, the family moved to Jefferson as Mr. Farnsworth was teaching in St. Charles, Illinois.
In January 1870 he organized the first Jefferson Township High School. The school was located at the southeast corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Irving Park Road, over the old Town Hall and Police Headquarters.
Jefferson High School was the forerunner of the Carl Schurz High School. A bronze tablet was placed over the entrance to Schurz' original Assembly Hall in 1910 naming James B. Farnsworth as founder of the first high school in Jefferson Township.
Mr. Farnsworth served the Maplewood School in 1878; principal of the Irving Park School in 1884 and previous to annexation in 1889 he was superintendent of four schools in District 11.
From 1889 until his death in 1915, Mr. Farnsworth was the principal of the John A. Logan School on Oakley Avenue. Upon completion of his 50th service year (1911) he was honored with a reception which attracted attendees from across the United States. A memorial bronze bust was unveiled at Holstein Park on March 22, 1918 and presented to the Board of Education and accepted with the understanding it would be placed in a school named after him. The dedication of the Farnsworth School on June 9, 1927 was highlighted by the presentation of the bust to the new principal.
Professor Farnsworth was affiliated with public schools for 54 years.