Loxton Mardi Gras, Australia's oldest, celebrates its 60th year

It raises a few eyebrows from newcomers, but the town of Loxton has been celebrating a Mardi Gras for 60 years, decades before Sydney claimed the name for itself.

That makes it one of the longest-running festivals in Australia and possibly the oldest festival in South Australia.

The Loxton Mardi Gras will be held this weekend and while "Mardi Gras" has become synonymous with the LGBTQI community, organisers of the Loxton festival hold firmly to the religious meaning behind the name.

"Mardi means Tuesday and Gras means grand," said one of the festival's organisers, Peter Magarey.

"It's a family religious festival to eat up big before the austerity of Lent."

Mr Magarey admits many in the town were not pleased when the Sydney festival took on the name.

"That's taken over in what people think of Mardi Gras. They think of Sydney," he said.

"We had much debate about that, we thought we might even write to Sydney Mardi Gras and suggest they were not doing the right thing with the name, but we thought that would be ridiculous so we just pressed on.

"People come to us and say: 'You're holding a Mardi Gras in Loxton?' We find ourselves a little defensive."

Initial Loxton Mardi Gras was to fund a pool

The Sydney Mardi Gras was first held in 1978 as a show of solidarity for international gay celebrations and was met with police violence.

It was the catalyst for civil rights reform and has become a major event for LGBTQI and mainstream communities, with this year's parade to be held on March 4.

For its part, the Loxton Mardi Gras has also played an important role in the fabric of its community.

"It has a long history, it has had a significant contribution into the economic and cultural wellbeing of our community and is a drawcard to our region," Mr Magarey said.

WWII flight engineer Harry Tickle founded the event as a means to raise money for a swimming pool.

The proud townsman had observed religious Mardi Gras festivals during his time serving in Europe.

"Harry Tickle was an interesting chap. He was a flight engineer with the Royal Australian Airforce on 'G for George', probably Australia's most famous aeroplane outside the Southern Cross."

Since its inception the Loxton Mardi Gras has raised about $1 million for its community, funding the town's swimming pool, playgrounds, supporting aged care facilities and helping to secure a pedal prix event.

Long tradition of queens and ambassadors

One of its enduring traditions has been the crowning of a Mardi Gras queen, renamed ambassadors in later years with the inclusion of men.

"We aim to mentor the ambassador entrants, whether they are seniors or juniors, so that they develop their public speaking and poise," Mr Magarey said.

"It is not only about fundraising, it is helping them be better people within the community; stronger characters and greater contributors."

Aileen Auld was crowned as the first Mardi Gras queen in 1958 and she will return to Loxton this weekend to celebrate.

"It was a bit surreal ... I think I was very proud to be queen of the Mardi Gras. I think there might have been a bit of jealousy [among other girls]," Ms Auld said.

While the event has survived six decades, there have been tough years as the community struggled through economic downturns.

"The 1980s with the big drought was a very difficult time and in fact we are in a very difficult time right now, looking ahead," Mr Magarey said.

There are no guarantees the town will be able to continue its proud tradition as it struggles to maintain enough volunteers to stage the festival.

"What we are now addressing is the current community attitude to volunteering," Mr Magarey said.

"Can we find in Loxton sufficient volunteers to participate in Mardi Gras 61?"

(Picture: A float from the 1970 Loxton Mardi Gras: ABC)