Ellen Preston grew up in Bellmawr, NJ, attending Highland High School. If you went to a Highland HS sporting event back in the 1970s, you may have seen Ellen as she was the Highland Tartans’ school mascot. Her outfit included a kilt, sash, gaiters, hat and bagpipes. How did she come to play the bagpipes? Ellen played clarinet in the school band and her teacher encouraged her to try bagpipes. While not easy to learn, she did it and still plays to this day, including at her son’s wedding. And yes, she did get to bonnie Scotland—three times.
In high school, Ellen read Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, sparking a lifetime interest in the Civil War (another favorite Civil War book is Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic). Her Civil War focus was further nurtured by a trip to Gettysburg with her Girl Scout troop when she and her Scout-mates reenacted the fighting at Devil’s Den and Pickett’s Charge.
After high school, Ellen attended Sterling College in Vermont before joining the Air Force as a life support specialist. She later took night school courses at Camden County College and got a Master of Science degree on-line from Swinburne University in Australia. Since getting her degree, Ellen has held many diverse jobs, including an anti-terrorist food expert, working for Amtrak on its $100 million labor schedule system, and her current position for the Delaware River Port Authority running its SAP Systems Upgrade project.
Ellen’s husband, Dietrich, is another Old Baldy member and Civil War enthusiast. They’ve been married 8 years though have known each other long before that, having met on South Street in Philly 26 years ago. Ellen saw him and a voice in her head said, “He’s the one.” So she went over and struck up a conversation. It turned out they both had mutual friends and they kept in touch over the years. And eventually they got married. Between them, they have three children from a prior marriage: Rowen Gunn (39) lives in Colorado while Remy (16) and Liam (18) reside in Pennsylvania.
Ellen has been with Old Baldy for 6 years and has served on its Board of Directors. But her most famous Old Baldy contribution has been her New Jersey Civil War map. The map started as a lark—she’s always had an interest in local history—and began researching places in New Jersey with Civil War connections. She then placed them on a map which eventually became the New Jersey Civil War map featured at our Old Baldy meetings. “It’s been a fun project,” Ellen noted, “which has really taken off.”
While Ellen does not have a favorite battlefield, she has visited many Civil War sites. Rich Jankowski likes to kid her as being the only other person he knows who has visited the Prairie Grove battlefield in Arkansas (Ellen was out there on a business trip). But her most memorable trip to a Civil War site was in 2017 when she was on a Fort Sumter tour during the total solar eclipse. Her group was at the fort when the eclipse began before moving onto a boat and seeing the climax on the water. “It was probably the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” recalled Ellen. “As it got closer to totality, a really creepy feeling came over us. The shadows were all wrong. While not totally black, it was dark enough.”
Her many other interests include life in the 1800s, nature photography (she has 30,000 photos, including eagles, ospreys and herons, her current favorite focus), kayaking and horses. Ellen has also served as the chairperson of the U.S.–Icelandic Horse Congress. This group helps with the importation of horses from Iceland. Because the breed is raised in this far north island nation, the isolation results in a unique small and sturdy steed. Ellen once wrote an article for an equine publication on riding Icelandic horses in the Pine Barrens which still generates comments from those fond of this unusual breed.
As can be seen, Ellen is a person of many interests and we are fortunate that her interests include the Civil War and the Old Baldy Civil War Round Table.