The harvest season has long been a time of celebration, and one of the most enduring rituals of late summer and early autumn is the state fair. With the mellowing heat of summer, Americans turn out in droves for one last hurrah.

Coca-Cola at the State Fair, Through the Years
A 1920 print ad celebrating Coke's role at the fair.

Given the timing, it makes sense that fairs have traditionally been agriculture-centric, though they've often added a dash of novelty with you-saw-it-here-first glimpses of The Next Big Thing.

In the late 19th century, among the squash weigh-ins and the blue ribbon-winning calves, Coca-Cola was cutting edge.

“Coca-Cola hit the ground running,” says Jamal Booker, manager of heritage communications for the company. Booker has found early references to Coca-Cola in state fairs dating back to 1888 in Texas.

“Which is interesting, because Coke was born in 1886 in Atlanta,” he says. "To find that a Coca-Cola soda fountain operated at the Texas state fair two years after the brand was born is pretty remarkable."

In a time when Coca-Cola was served primarily at soda fountains, carrying the drink around the fair in bottles was fascinatingly novel (after 1900). To that end, at some of the fairs, Coca-Cola would erect miniature bottling plants filled with piles of swag. “The amount of detail, work and effort the Coke folks would put into these displays was amazing,” says Booker.

Modern Conveniences

Well into the 20th century, Coca-Cola was still drawing attention with its award-winning fair displays. “The Texas State Fair in 1922 had an attendance of approximately 1 million,” says Booker. “And it’s estimated that 99 percent came through the Coca-Cola exhibit.”

Coca-Cola at the State Fair, Through the Years
A 1978 illustrated ad.

Refreshment is important in the hot, late-summer days of Texas, to be sure. But Coca-Cola sweetened the deal. “In terms of the amount of free Coca-Cola giveaways, the brand was extravagant,” says Booker.

The Coke-branded memorabilia served as somewhat of a time capsule of pop culture. Coca-Cola distributed 20 thousand ink blotters, a part of any fashionable writing desk set.

The crew also distributed 10,000 thimbles, 800 airplanes and 1,000 ice picks. Imagine finding ice picks in a modern fair.

“Those were the useful items people needed,” says Booker. “Nowadays it might be a mini electric fan or something else that’s very useful.”

But Coca-Cola has always catered to the crowds. “We try to make special events special,” Booker says, recalling the words of one poster from the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee: “At the world's fair and the county fair. At high school games and the Olympic games. Coke is there.”

Click here for a slideshow of Coke at state fairs

Bizarre Foods

In a time when it seems like there’s nothing new under the sun, fair food is made novel by virtue of unusual preparation methods. That's also nothing new; waffles made into ice cream cones, peanuts ground into butter, and ground-beef burgers have all been presented as innovative in the past century and a half.

Modern food purveyors in fair tents tend to have a knack for finding odd things to toss into the deep-fat fryer. As Serious Eats aptly puts it, “State Fairs prove that you can deep-fry anything your heart desires.” Even Coke.

Favorite Fairs

Here, five of the most-enduring state fairs in the country:

1. State Fair of Texas

Everything is bigger in Texas. The State Fair of Texas lasts for nearly a month, and pulls in 3 million annually. The fair food is equally impressive. The Breakfast For Dinner, for example, wrapped scrambled eggs, breakfast sausage, bacon, potatoes, ham, onion, cheddar cheese and cinnamon roll bits in a tortilla. As if to suggest that alone was tame, it was then deep-fried and served with creamy country gravy, salsa and queso dip.

2. The Iowa State Fair

The Iowa State Fair debuted in October 1854, and now attracts more than 1 million visitors annually to Des Moines. The Des Moines Register recently called the Iowa State Fair’s food offerings an “arms race of new, ever-wilder stick food.” The deep-fried butter on a stick, one old standby, has been discontinued. But there’s no shortage of butter at the fair; the most notable use of dairy can be found in the 600-pound Butter Cow. “While a real dairy cow weighs more than 1,000 pounds, a 600-lb. butter cow would butter 19,200 slices of toast and take an average person two lifetimes to consume,” fair staff reports. “Much of the butter is recycled and reused for up to 10 years.”

3. New York State Fair

First held in 1841, the New York State Fair is the U.S.’s oldest. It features a number of concerts and rides, but also puts the state’s agricultural bounty in the spotlight, with a tasting tent featuring a New York-made wine competition. Though wine is fine, deep-fried food aficionados might prefer Jim Hasbrouck Fried Specialties, which touts itself as the “Home of the Original Deep Fried PBJ.” This year’s hit was the Twinx, a deep-fried bacon-wrapped, Twix-stuffed Twinkie. “No website dares print its nutritional value, but based on the components, the Twinx contains at least 1,100 calories and 80 grams of fat,” reported the Syracuse Post-Standard.

4. Minnesota State Fair

Another long-running and well-attended event, The Minnesota State Fair welcomed more than 1,824,000 this year. The fair is almost as old as the state — the first was held in 1859, just one year after Minnesota was granted statehood. Minnesota fully grasps the allure of fair food, and offers a printable list of new edible options on its website, which includes deep-fried Canadian lobster on a stick and fresh-smoked wall-eye macaroni and cheese.

Coca-Cola at the State Fair, Through the Years

5. California State Fair

In its 161st year, the California State Fair (pictured above) has always been about agriculture. California, after all, is the number-one grossing farm state in the continental U.S. However, the fair also seems to be about upping the ante with strange food offerings and has, in the past, proudly served bug-topped burgers. Among the finest this year was a dish of ice cream so spicy that you must be 18 years old to eat it.