There’s is something about the South that charms me beyond belief. The beautiful Live Oak and Magnolia trees, the front porches, the people, everything about it makes me warm inside. The Belle Meade Plantation is everything that’s beautiful about the South wrapped up into one historic 150 year home and estate.
The Belle Meade Plantation is now a popular tourist attraction for those visiting Nashville. The gorgeous Plantation plays host to weddings and special events all year around, but the estate’s past is much more than a beautiful home and tourist attraction.
History of The Belle Meade Plantation
In 1806, John Harding purchased 200 acres of land that would eventually become the Belle Meade Plantation. Harding was no one particularly special. He had no formal education and did not come from a wealthy family, but he was a hard working man, a skilled farmer, and an entrepreneur.
Soon, Harding began buying slaves to help with the labor needs of his new farm and land. Slowly but surely, Harding’s operation grew and soon he became on of the largest slaves owners in Nashville (a definite sign of status and money in those days)
By 1820, Harding began construction on a new modest brick home on a small hill. He named the estate Belle Meade which means “beautiful meadow”.
As I mentioned before, Harding was a brilliant entrepreneur. He began to notice the popularity of thoroughbred racing moving west from Virginia and the Carolinas. Harding saw an opportunity for profit and soon added thoroughbred boarding and breeding to his list of services the Belle Meade Plantation offered. With his new found business and profit from thoroughbred racing, the Belle Meade Plantation continued to grow at an alarming rate. By 1860, The Plantation had grown to over 3500 acres, with 136 enslaved people working for the plantation. John Harding soon gave management of the Belle Meade Planatation over to his son, William Gilles Harding.
Although the Civil War put a kink in many thoroughbred breeding businesses, the Hardings, led by William’s management, were able to continue growing their operation and eventually developed an auction system for their thoroughbreds (the first of its kind). William Harding became the most successful thoroughbred breeder and distributor in the entire state of Tennessee.
Just how good were the Harding family thoroughbred bloodlines?
Seabiscuit, Secretariat, and American Pharaoh all trace their blood lines back to the Harding family breeding operation.
By 1868, William Harding’s daughter Selene had married William Hicks Jackson. The couple soon moved to the Plantation so that William Jackson could help his father-in-law, William Harding manage the Belle Meade Plantation. By 1875, Harding and Jackson stepped away from horse racing and decided to focus all of their efforts exclusively on thoroughbred breeding.
The Belle Meade Plantation was a well-known estate by now, and attracted many guest from both near and far. President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland, Robert Todd Lincoln, General U.S. Grant, General William T. Sherman, General Winfield Scott Hancock, and Adlai E. Stevenson were all guests at the Belle Meade Plantation. Guests were treated to the old charm of a stunning southern plantation along with delicious barbecues and tours of the thoroughbred paddocks.
By the early 1900’s, baseball began to gain popularity and took over as the sport America couldn’t get enough of. Horses and thoroughbred racing were no long the center of attention and no longer the money making business they once were. The Jackson/Harding family fell into some major debt and began selling off some of the Belle Meade Plantation’s land to cover the debts. By 1906, 2600 acres of the Plantation had been sold. As time passed and generations of the family took ownership of the Plantation, it became less and less of a priority to keep the estate in the family.
Between 1906 and 1951 The Belle Meade went through 6 different owners of no relation to the Jackson/Harding families. In 1953, the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities purchased the Plantation and deeded it in a trust as a monument to the Old South. The APTA still owns the plantation today.
Belle Meade Mansion Tour
The Mansion tour was extremely interesting. The tour lasted about 45 minutes and took us all throughout the house, top to bottom. Instead of having one tour guide the entire time, there were different guides for each room in the house. All of the guides were women and all were dressed in traditional dresses that would have been worn around the mid-1900’s.
The inside of home is beautifully restored and filled with plenty of original art work, pictures, and trinkets from the Jackson/Harding families. I thought each of the guides was phenomenal. I’m a slight (read: huge) history nerd so I had questions for nearly every room we toured and each guide was happy to answer my questions.
Belle Meade Winery
The best part? Each mansion tour ends with a wine tasting! That’s right, wine! The Belle Meade Plantation opened its very own winery in 2009. The Belle Meade Winery is a non-profit, so while they can sell their wine (at the Plantation or online) they cannot distribute their wine. Which means that it can’t be found being served off the menu in any restaurants or bars.
If you go
- The Belle Meade is open daily from 9am-5pm
- The first Mansion tour begins at 9:30am, the last tour begins at 4:30pm
- There is a variety of tours you can take including a grounds tour, a mansion tour, and a wine and cheese paring tour.
- I took and recommend the Mansion tour, which also gives you access to the of the areas of the estate.
- Photography of any kind is strictly prohibited in the mansion or during the mansion tours.
- All mansion tours end with a wine tasting! What’s better than that?!
- Admission for a mansion tour is $20 for adults and $12 for children ages 6-12.
- Grounds tour admission is $12.
- The Belle Meade Plantation is also home to a restaurant called The Harding House. The restaurant is open for brunch and lunch Monday-Friday 11am-3pm and Saturday and Sunday 9am-3pm.