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amusement park ride at local fair

Photo by Andy Watkins on Unsplash

Boxes of old family photos, letters, and other memorabilia have been sitting in my attic for the past 40 years. I retired recently, and I decided it was finally time to sort through them all. I count everyone from farmers to financiers to physicists and more than one ne’er-do-well among my ancestors, who date back to the early 18th century in America. My sorting has acquainted me with many of them, including a grandfather who wrote a series of letters to his wife, Ruby, in the early 20th century.

He was a professor of animal husbandry at the University of Illinois, but I learned that he had supplemented his meager faculty salary by judging livestock at state fairs across the Midwest. But in one letter I came across something very strange: Animals weren’t the only creatures my grandfather judged.

In a letter to Ruby in 1916, he wrote, “Over 90 babies entered the contest. . . . The best baby was the finest youngster I ever saw — she scored 100! Wish I could...