At the end of a long driveway in Nashville’s wealthiest enclave sits a stately antebellum mansion. Flanked by massive magnolias, its porch is filled with rocking chairs ready to welcome anyone stopping by. Its stucco façade gleams a little less than it did at its construction over 150 years ago, but the chips and pockmarks are part of history. The history of this place—Belle Meade plantation and its mansion—is the history of a family and business weathering the century that included the Civil War. It was our first stop on our visit to Nashville.
Belle Meade plantation is one of the premier plantations in Tennessee. It once stretched over 5400 acres and hosted celebrities, presidents, and countless southern gentlemen. Even though it is now just 24 acres, many of the important elements remain.
A tour of this Nashville plantation tells the story of the people—black and white—who lived here. They saw a place that started with a modest log cabin become the largest thoroughbred horse farm in the country.
Belle Meade Plantation History
Belle Meade plantation is the estate of the Harding and Jackson family, whom our tour guide assured us was “no relation to President Harding, Tonya Harding, Andrew Jackson, Alan Jackson, or Michael Jackson.” They were, in fact, just a group of hard-working people who became enormously wealthy and successful over the years. Until they weren’t anymore.
In 1807, Virginian John Harding purchased a log cabin and 250 acres of land—what is now the plantation. He boarded horses for neighbors such as Andrew Jackson (who lived nearby at the Hermitage), bred thoroughbreds, and was active in horse racing with the help of his son William Giles Harding. By 1860, William Giles was one of the most successful horse racers in America. But all that came to a halt throughout the South when the Civil War began.
A die-hard Confederate, William Giles was a Brigadier General in the Tennessee State Militia. He supported the South’s position in his actions and with his substantial bank account. The richest man in Nashville at the time, Harding donated $500,000 to help the South win the war. When the Union moved into Nashville in 1862, he was imprisoned for six months before they released him on parole.
Despite losing the money he contributed to the war, General Harding weathered the conflict better than many in the South. He kept all of his thoroughbreds, even while other farms had their horses taken by soldiers on both sides. The immediate aftermath of the Civil War was also a very successful time for General Harding. While much of the nation was rebuilding, he soared.
In 1867, Harding was the first in Tennessee to auction thoroughbreds bred on his farm, which attracted attention nationwide and helped him become the most successful thoroughbred breeder and distributor in Tennessee. That same year, General Harding won more prize money with his horses than anyone in the United States.
With the help of his son-in-law, William Hicks Jackson, General Harding shifted away from racing to focus exclusively on breeding. He turned the plantation into an internationally renowned thoroughbred farm and showplace. Even after Harding’s death, the legacy continued with Belle Meade producing bloodlines that still influence racing today (the horses are immortalized on the labels of Nashville’s Belle Meade whiskey).
But the glory, wealth, and prestige of Belle Meade couldn’t last forever. In 1893, the country slid into a financial crisis at the same time that evangelical movements caused the closure of racetracks and ended gambling. Not a good situation for people whose livelihood depended on all of those things.
By 1906, all of the 2600 acres that had belonged to Jackson were sold, including Belle Meade mansion. At its sale, Belle Meade was the oldest and largest thoroughbred farm in the United States.
African Americans at the Plantation
The massive operation at Belle Meade required more than a few hands. During the plantation’s heyday, the Hardings didn’t lack the funds to acquire them. Enslaved people ran the blacksmith shop and the cotton gin on the property. And, when the grist mill and saw mill were added, enslaved people played a huge role in running those, too. By the time the breeding and racing operation was in full swing, enslaved people served as trainers and jockeys on the property.
Over the years, Belle Meade’s population grew steadily. John Harding became one of the largest slave owners in the area, with more than 136 enslaved people on the property by 1860. The business could not have survive without them.
As the farm became more specialized, many slaves became skilled at stonemasonry, millwork, woodworking, and blacksmithing. Each member of the Harding family also had a personal servant who often slept in their room in the mansion. They had to be available at all times. After the Civil War, most of Belle Meade’s formerly enslaved families left the farm, but 72 people remained as paid employees. .
The most well-known enslaved person was Robert “Bob” Green, whom General Harding brought to work on the plantation in 1839. As he grew up working with horses, Bob was an expert in everything related to the thoroughbreds. He was an indispensable part of the training and breeding operation.
After Emancipation, Bob was the highest paid worker on the plantation, and his expertise was acknowledged throughout the horse business around the world. When Bob died in 1906, several white men served as his pallbearers, a testament to his skill and fortitude.
In addition to Bob Green, the names and stories of some of the enslaved people are part of the Belle Meade tour. From a domestic servant named Dicey to Ben the blacksmith, Patrick the laborer, and Susanna Carter the head housekeeper, the plantation tries to tell their stories alongside those of the Harding family, despite the scant information available. The project—called the Journey to Jubilee—highlights the contributions these important people made to the plantation.
The building of the plantation began in 1820 when John Harding oversaw the construction of a brick house on his 250 acres. Building this new, Federal-style home allowed him and his wife Susannah to move out of the log cabin they had occupied for 13 years and marked the transformation of the land into a plantation.
With business on the upswing in 1853, William Giles Harding made major changes to the old home to reflect the family’s success. The house was enlarged into a Greek-Revival style mansion. The red brick was covered with stucco, and a two-story verandah was created, complete with six limestone pillars. (Some of those pillars are marked with bullet holes from the Civil War skirmish that took place in the front yard in 1864.)
The interior was just as grand as the exterior. Visitors were greeted in the entrance hall with fourteen-foot-high ceilings. Everywhere, the walls were decked with paintings of the famous thoroughbreds and portraits of the Harding family. Brilliant gas chandeliers hung from the ceiling. No expense was spared for the family while the enslaved people lived in drafty wooden cabin elsewhere on the property.
Over time, the house was modernized to include bathrooms with hot and cold running water, as well as a telephone—all well before the turn of the century.
Today’s plantation is a fraction of its original self. Most of the buildings left on the site, which is now just 24 acres, are available on a self-guided tour.
The original 1807 log cabin still stands on the property. The Hardings moved out of the cabin in 1820, and it ultimately became the home of renowned horse trainer Bob Green and his family. One room of the cabin reflects what it might have looked like when the Hardings lived there in the early 1800s, and the other room depicts the possible living arrangements of the Greens 100 years later.
A short walk away are the 1884 dairy that supplied milk, cream, cheese, and butter to the plantation and the 1826 smokehouse, which was once the largest in the South. As much as 20,000 pounds of meat were smoked there each year.
Nearby, the carriage house and stables are some of the only clues to the massive thoroughbred operation that dominated life here.
A reconstructed two-room cabin gives an idea of the living conditions of the enslaved workers on the plantation. Photos inside show them at work and at rest. Exhibits focus on religion and material culture as well as efforts to uncover the history of the enslaved people who lived here.
After the self-guided portion of the tour, a guide in period costume takes visitors through the plantation’s centerpiece—the mansion. Themes (holidays, aspects of plantation life, etc.) change periodically and give glimpses into the family who once occupied its rooms. The mansion is decorated in 1880s fashion, and most furnishings are original, from the plethora of taxidermy to the engraved pistols and ornate tea sets.
The last stop on the tour is Belle Meade Winery. Because all good tours end with a wine tasting. Though the winery isn’t from the time of the Hardings and Jacksons–it’s only 10 years old–there is evidence that Muscadine grapes used for traditional sweet wine were grown on the plantation in the 1800s.
The complimentary tasting includes three types of wines made from grapes grown elsewhere in Tennessee and in California. The profits from the winery support the upkeep of the plantation.
Location: 110 Leake Avenue in Nashville, about a half-hour from downtown
Hours: 9:00am-5:00pm daily; the first tour begins at 9:30am and the last tour begins at 4:00pm
Prices: Admission is $24 for adults and $13 for those ages 6-18. Children 5 and under are free.
Tours: There are a number of specialty tours, including one that focuses on the lives of the enslaved people. Specifics can be found on the website.
Food: The on-site restaurant, Harding House, serves lunch daily and brunch on the weekends.
We were the guests of Visit Music City. All opinions of the historical and equestrian are our own.