An Accidental (Mis)adventure at Blackburn Park

Sometimes, life needs a dose of spontaneity—and that’s exactly what my friend Stephanie and I got ourselves into recently when I casually posed the question, “What if we just turned left at the next stoplight?” We had just finished eating lunch and were driving back from a nondescript diner in South County that I had wanted to try for awhile. A little disappointed from that experience, I was feeling restless.

Stephanie gamely took the bait, saying “Why not?” After all, we were driving on a thoroughfare that cut through neighborhoods teeming with unique, mid-century brick homes. We both enjoy random adventures and exploring neighborhoods, so the next left-hand turn would likely deliver on both accounts.

Oh yes, it did.

After traipsing down several side streets and gazing admiringly at row upon row of modest and beautiful houses, we took another left-hand turn. This time, instead of launching us into another neighborhood, we ended up parallel to what appeared to be, of all things, a park.

“Turn into the parking lot,” Stephanie insisted. Driving up to the sign, I saw it read—Blackburn Park. A moment later, something registered. “Blackburn Park! This is crazy! I was just looking at this on Google Maps the other day, and have really been wanting to come out here!” When I get excited, the feeling can be hard to physically contain. “I can’t believe we ended up here!”

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As we got out of the car, I realized an additional two things. One, my phone had very low battery, and my car charger was sitting on the kitchen table at home. And two… did I just hear thunder?

Undeterred, Stephanie spearheaded the exploration, starting by veering off the wide brick path that appeared to cut through the center of the park. On we went to inspect knobby old trees, stand under park shelters that more closely resembled Spanish-tiled villas, and watch two squirrels whirling around tree trunks, locked in an endless chase.

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Almost every time we hang out, something inevitably leads to a photoshoot. Since my phone has a higher quality camera, we pulled it out for several shots, warily watching the battery creep lower, but unable to resist the advantageous scenery around us. Since you’re seeing this post, you know we came away unscathed, and my phone battery eventually did recover. But in the moment, it added an extra bit of urgency and hilarity to the proceedings.

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A group of teenagers was hanging out in the center of the park, and I couldn’t help but think what an unusual sight it must have been to them when we spotted a Swallowtail butterfly and followed its erratic flight path, trying to take a picture before it disappeared in the tree canopy.

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Meanwhile, the column of clouds approaching from the west continued to climb higher. With the underbelly turning a dark shade of blue, I was getting a little nervous about being caught out in the storm. But on the playground we passed, kids continued to play and parents continued to watch. Walkers continued walking, and occasional bicyclists kept passing through.

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While taking a rest under one villa/shelter, a young mom approached and commented that she was inspecting the shelter for an upcoming birthday party for her child. “It’s a beautiful place for that,” we agreed. She lingered for a few minutes, sharing snippets of her plans for that day and details of the community pool, before resuming her afternoon errands. It was a breath of fresh air to meet a stranger in that random place, at that random moment, and share some bits of small talk. It reminded me of the good rooted deep in our neighborhoods, the togetherness and sense of community that perhaps helps form the backbone of society.

Right then, another roll of thunder jolted me to attention. “Let’s keep going,” I suggested, and Stephanie agreed.

Meandering down several paths, we got an overall good scope of the park. And it was beautiful. Everything I’d hoped to find when I examined the square of green from my laptop, just the week prior.

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The storm clouds were almost directly overhead now, threatening to release fat droplets of rain, and my phone battery couldn’t take much more excitement. So we descended a hill back into the parking lot, laughing at the adventurous misadventure that had just befallen us. I turned the engine on and directed the car back toward the street.

“Which way should we go?” Stephanie asked.

“How about that way. Past the stoplight and up over the hill. I was wondering what’s over there when we drove by earlier.”

 

Know Before You Go

Address: 394 Edgar Rd, Webster Groves, MO 63119

Hours: 6 a.m. to a half hour past sunset.

Facilities: There are two locations with restrooms in the park. Several shelters (which may need to be reserved ahead of time) and picnic tables are also available. There are tennis courts, a bird sanctuary (which we didn’t get to, but sounds neat), a playground, and other amenities tucked throughout its 38 acres.

Trails: There are paved walking paths throughout the park. See this map from the City of Webster Groves.

General Info: With walking paths, shelters, and loads of shade from mature trees, Blackburn Park is a very restful place to enjoy a birthday party or just walk and think. In 2012, the Riverfront Times highlighted Blackburn Park as the best birdwatching opportunity in the St. Louis area. Curious about its history, I found that the park was created when an inventor named Jasper Blackburn and his wife donated their land to the city of Webster Groves for the purpose of a park. There doesn’t seem to be much out there in terms of a good history of the park, so if you find more, comment and share below!

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Thornhill Estate at Faust Park: This Photography Lover’s Best Kept Secret

If you like photography—whether you’re an amateur or seasoned professional—you likely have a favorite spot or two for whipping out your camera whenever you get the chance. I am no different.

Just a few months after moving to St. Louis, I stumbled across a location that I’ve come back to time and again—with friends and by myself, for my own engagement and wedding photos, and even recently to try out my first ‘real’ big girl camera. Every time I return, I know where to head for reliably beautiful backdrops. And so far, it’s never failed that a different aspect of this place has captured my attention and imagination, whether I’m in front of or behind the lens.

This place is Thornhill Estate. Tucked behind Faust Park in Chesterfield, Thornhill is where Frederick Bates, Missouri’s second governor, called home.

The estate is comprised of a stately white house and a collection of well-preserved barns and other outbuildings, all perched atop a sloping hill at the end of a long gravel drive. Dotted with features like rows of mature trees, a period vegetable garden, and an open expanse of field, the grounds are filled with photo opportunities from end to end.

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A front view of Gov. Frederick Bates’ house at Thornhill Estate.
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A side view of Gov. Frederick Bates’ home at Thornhill Estate.

According to a site history I found from St. Louis County Parks, Gov. Frederick Bates had the house constructed around 1820 in a style inspired by homes from his native state of Virginia. Shown above, one feature of the home (when viewed from the front) is a symmetrical floor plan.

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Behind the house are several small outbuildings, a garden, and not pictured, a small family burial plot.

 

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A line of old, mature trees separates the field from the grounds surrounding the house.

I first discovered Thornhill while exploring Faust Park with a good friend. After walking around the front of the park outside the Butterfly House, a popular attraction Faust Park is known for, we drove through the roundabout skirting the Butterfly House to see what else we could find. As we started down a gravel drive that appeared to be an extension of the park, we almost questioned whether we were entering private property. But as the beautiful farm came into view up the hill, I realized we had just stumbled upon a gem of a historic site. A sign at the wood fence separating the property from the parking lot confirmed that it was okay to explore.

I’m pretty sure my friend and I had the entirety of Thornhill to ourselves during that initial visit—and that’s something that has struck me every time I’ve gone back. There are typically not many people there. This scarcity of visitors adds to the appeal of this unique location as a backdrop, or the main attraction, for some serious photography, because there is no competition for the best vantage point or frustration of needing to crop or edit people out of your photos.

After I got engaged, one of my best friends agreed to come to St. Louis and do an engagement session for Nathan and me. We ended up doing two locations: the Gateway Arch (which is where we got engaged), and Thornhill Estate. I must say, Sarah Jacquel Photography did a pretty good job.

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One of my favorite photos from our engagement session took place in front of the very barn that captured my heart the moment I laid eyes on it. Photo credit @Sarah Jacquel Photography.

We got some beautiful images in front of the dark wood barn that I admired so much the first time I saw it, as well as other locations throughout the property. It was fall, so the field beside the house offered another gorgeous backdrop. On a side note, every season is an ideal time of year to visit Thornhill. In autumn, the golden color of the field makes for an awesome background, and in June, the edges of of the same field are filled with soft purple flowers.

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An engagement photo in the field beside the main house at Thornhill Estate. Photo credit @Sarah Jacquel Photography
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Purple flowers show up at Thornhill in late spring.

When Nathan and I got married in 2015, we went back to Thornhill after the reception for a special photoshoot with our wonderful photographer, Woven Bone Photography.

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One of the many beautiful images from a special wedding session at Thornhill Estate. Photo credit @Woven Bone Photography

Once again, we got some photos in front of the dark wood barn, as well as the front of the house, and other locations around the property. And like almost every time I’ve been there, we barely encountered anyone. That made it much easier to relax and be ourselves, which I think showed through in our photos.

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Sitting on the front steps of the house at Thornhill Estate. Photo credit @ Woven Bone Photography

For me, Thornhill is an oasis from a busy and fast paced life. It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of the everyday. This place forces me out of that. I never expected I’d end up living and working in a larger metropolitan area, so it was an unexpected treat to find this undisturbed piece of land—and slice of history. Each step into the property takes me further back in time and allows me to wonder and marvel at the beauty around me. I’ve always left feeling refreshed… and mentally planning my next Thornhill visit.

So all of this is to say, if you’re in St. Louis and looking for a good location for a photo op, you now know my personal favorite and best kept secret. Feel free to share some images if you get out that way!

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Know Before You Go

Address: 15185 Olive Blvd, Chesterfield, MO 63017

Hours: 7 a.m. to a half hour past official sunset.

Facilities: Bathrooms are available near the front of Faust park by the playground area. There are some picnic tables on a hill behind the main house (pictured above).

Trails: The Governor Bates Trail (named for the governor who resided at Thornhill) is just over a mile long and begins at the estate. It’s rated as difficult (as of this post, I haven’t yet hiked it).

General Info: If you’re a thorough explorer, you could spend over an hour poking through the nooks and crannies of the Thornhill grounds. The rest of Faust Park offers a variety of attractions, like a historic village, playground, the Butterfly House (which is managed by the Missouri Botanical Gardens), and the Carousel.