Belle Meade Plantation: History, Horses & Hospitality

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.

Belle Meade Plantation, Nashville, Tennessee 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”.

Belle Meade Plantation, Nashville, Tennessee 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.

Belle Meade Plantation, Nashville, TennesseeAlthough 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.

Belle Meade Plantation, Nashville, Tennessee

The backside of the Belle Meade Plantation Mansion

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.

Belle Meade Plantation, Nashville, Tennessee

In the foreground, the grave of one of the Plantation’s most prized horses. In the background, the beautiful barn.

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.

Belle Meade Plantation, Nashville, Tennessee

The stunning grounds of the estate play host to weddings and various special events throughout the year.

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.

Belle Meade Plantation, Nashville, Tennessee

We were given 4 different wines to sample. Two reds and two whites.

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.

The Belle Meade Plantation is everything that's beautiful about the South wrapped up into one historic 150 year home and estate. Make sure you make you visit this beautiful estate on your next trip to Nashville.

Have you ever visited a traditional Southern Plantation?

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  • I’m so glad that you enjoyed your visit to Belle Meade Plantation! It was so interesting to learn about a different type of plantation “crop” while we were there, and it’s so crazy to think that a lot of the racing horses that we know about today can trace their roots back to Belle Meade. You really can’t ask for anything better than ending your tour at the winery either! I can’t wait for the rest of your Nashville posts!

    • I am such a history nerd so I loved this tour so much. I was a little bummed you couldn’t take any pictures in the house during the tours. most historic homes tours i’ve done allow pics. but otherwise i loved the whole experience.

  • I would love to visit a plantation down South! I mean let’s face it, I got my “knowledge” on the Southern States from Hart of Dixie and that can’t be right 😀 Definitely need to visit one day 🙂

    • it’s so funny you mention Hart of Dixie because I saw it on Netflix last week and was thinking i need to start watching it now that I’m living in the South! haha. I also desperately want to re-watch Sweet home Alabama. haha.

  • WINE. YES. I’ve never been to a plantation, and it’s one of the things I’m REALLY hoping to do eventually (aiming for summer 2017)!!! I’m a bit obsessed with Gone With the Wind, and any and all Southern legends/stories. Love this post and your great writing, Carrie! And wine at the end, for the win! 🙂

    • Thanks so much, Swags! Now that I’ve gone on one plantation tour I’d love to do more! it’s so charming and pretty! I wanted to do one in New Orleans (they have some stunning plantations there) but I ran out of time. just another reason to go back! 🙂

  • What a grand old place. I’ve never been to an old plantation.

    • they ooze with charm and make me want to have lived in another time period…and then the tour guides mention corsets and i’m like “ahh, hell no!!” LOL

  • This place has quite the history! Even though stories of slavery always make me pretty sad, it’s important to remember as well! This estate is so beautiful and looks like a wonderful place to visit and learn about Southern historical culture..I’ve never been to a plantation, but would definitely like to see one soon! And with a wine tasting at the end of the tour… this just might be the one 😀

    • I completely agree, Lauren! The slavery issue is always a sad one to hear about. I actually checked out some of the historic places in downtown Montgomery, AL last week and was stunned to hear about the slave history in the city. That’ll be coming in a future post! 🙂

  • What? Nashville? I had no idea a place like this was located close to the city. My husband and I ran into friends form Nashville about 3 weeks ago. They invited us to their house and I feel like taking that invitation seriously!

    • Yes! my thoughts too Ruth! I thought for sure this had to be a ways out of the city, but it wasn’t at all! it was very easy to get to and not far away at all! Nashville is such a cute city! great food and great vibe throughout the entire city! i’d definitely recommend it!

  • What a beautiful place and so full of history too! I can see why you loved visiting. I knew very little about the plantations so thanks so much for posting such an informative post 🙂

  • I’m with @laurenonlocation:disqus , sometimes it is hard to imagine the life that those places had and the reasons of why they thrived. Thank you for such informative post!

    • I completely agree, Isabel. the slave culture of those days is always hard for me to wrap my mind around.

  • This is a great review of the mansion/plantation. I had no idea there was a plantation in Nashville. It’s so sad (but understandable) that so much of the land was sold in the early 1900s. I do love that the tour ends in a wine tasting though. 🙂 I’ll have to check out the plantation if/when I ever return to Nashville!