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 white than it did at its construction over 150 years ago, but the chips and the pockmarks are a part of history. The history of this place—Belle Meade plantation and its grand mansion—is the history of a family weathering the ups and downs in 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. Once stretching over 5400 acres and playing host to celebrities, presidents, and countless southern gentlemen, the plantation is now just 24 acres. But many of the important elements remain. A tour of Belle Meade tells the story of the people—black and white—who lived here and saw a place that started as a 250-acre plot with a modest log cabin become the largest thoroughbred horse farm in the country.
The Hardings, the Jacksons, and their horses
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.
Using money he earned from managing his father’s farm operations, Virginian John Harding purchased a log cabin and 250 acres of land—what is now Belle Meade plantation—in 1807. John had no formal education, but he was a skilled farmer and had learned the ins and outs of business from his father. In no time, he was putting his knowledge to use in multiple enterprises on the land and starting a legacy that would continue there for the next 100 years.
By 1816, John boarded horses for neighbors such as Andrew Jackson (who lived nearby at the Hermitage) and bred thoroughbreds. With the help of his son William Giles Harding, John became active in racing the horses at local tracks, which ignited the family horse business. When William Giles assumed management of Belle Meade plantation in 1839, racing and breeding were the primary focuses. By 1860, William Giles Harding was considered to have the largest collection of silver trophies and cups of anyone in America. But all that came to a halt throughout the South when the Civil War began.
A die-hard Confederate, William Giles Harding had become a Brigadier General in the Tennessee State Militia before the war broke out. He continued to support the South’s position in his actions and with his substantial bank account (he was the richest man in Nashville), donating $500,000 to help the South win the war. When the Union moved into Nashville in 1862, General Harding was arrested and imprisoned in Michigan for six months before being released on parole and returning to Belle Meade.
Despite losing the money he contributed to the war, General Harding weathered the conflict at lot better than many in the South. Luckily for him, he was able to keep all of his thoroughbreds, even while other farms were having 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 became the first in Tennessee to auction thoroughbreds bred on his farm, which attracted attention nationwide and ultimately 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 his focus away from racing to focus exclusively on breeding, turning the plantation into an internationally renowned thoroughbred farm and showplace. Even after Harding’s death, the legacy continued with Belle Meade plantation producing bloodlines that still influence racing today.
But the glory, wealth, and prestige of Belle Meade plantation couldn’t last forever. In 1893, the country began to slide into a financial crisis at the same time that evangelical movements in Tennessee resulted in the closure of racetracks and eventually 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 Belle Meade Plantation
The massive operation at Belle Meade required more than a few hands, and 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, slaves played a huge role in running those, too. By the time the breeding and racing operation was in full swing, enslaved people also 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. As the farm became more specialized, many slaves developed the skills necessary for the particular work, including 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, of course. After the Civil War, most of Belle Meade plantation’s formerly enslaved families left their homes on the farm, but 72 people remained as paid employees on the plantation.
The most well-known slave was Robert “Bob” Green, whom General Harding brought to work on the plantation in 1839. As he grew up working with horses, Bob became an expert in everything related to the thoroughbreds and was an indispensable part of the training and breeding operation. After Emancipation, Bob became the highest paid worker on Belle Meade plantation, and his expertise was acknowledged throughout the horse business around the world. When he died in 1906, several white men served as his pallbearers. In the South. Think on that for a minute.
Today, in addition to Bob Green, the names and stories of some of the slaves can be found as part of the Belle Meade plantation tour. From a domestic servant named Dicey to Ben the blacksmith, Patrick the laborer, and Susanna Carter the head housekeeper, the plantation is making an effort to tell the stories alongside those of the Harding family, despite the sometimes scant information available. The project—called the Journey to Jubilee—is designed to highlight the contributions these important people made to the plantation.
About Belle Meade Mansion
The building of Belle Meade 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 the previous 13 years and marked the transformation of the land into a plantation.
With business on the upswing in 1853, William Giles Harding undertook major changes to the old home to reflect the family’s success. The house was altered and 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 now 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 plantation’s famous thoroughbreds and portraits of the Harding family. Brilliant gas chandeliers hung from the ceiling. No expense was spared. Over time, the house was modernized to include three full bathrooms with hot and cold running water, as well as a telephone—all well before the turn of the century.
About the Belle Meade Plantation Tour
Today’s Belle Meade 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 log cabin purchased by John Harding in 1807 still stands on the property. The Hardings moved out of the cabin in 1820 and it ultimately became the home of the property’s renowned horse trainer Bob Green and his family. One room of the cabin now 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 large carriage house and stables, built in 1892, are some of the only clues to the massive thoroughbred operation that once dominated life at Belle Meade plantation. The Harding and Jackson family’s carriage collection is displayed here, but we were unable to see it during our visit because the facilities double as an area for weddings.
A reconstructed two-room cabin gives an idea of the living conditions of the enslaved workers on the plantation. Photos inside depict some of the slaves at work and at rest. Exhibits focus on religion and material culture on the plantation as well as recent efforts to uncover the history of the slaves who lived here.
After the self-guided portion of the tour, a guide in period costume takes visitors through the plantation’s centerpiece—Belle Meade mansion. Themes (holidays, aspects of plantation life, etc.) change periodically and give glimpses into the lives of the prominent family who once occupied its rooms. The mansion is decorated as it would have been in the 1880s, and nearly all of the furnishings are original from the plethora of taxidermy to the engraved pistols and ornate tea sets.
The last stop on the tour of Belle Meade plantation is the winery. Because all good tours end with a wine tasting. Though the winery doesn’t date from the time of the Hardings and Jacksons–it’s actually only 6 year 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.
Visiting Belle Meade 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: Belle Meade plantation offers a number of specialty tours. Specifics can be found on the website.
We were the guests of Visit Music City. All opinions of the historical and equestrian are our own.