Our first journey outside Nashville was to the Belle Meade Plantation. It sits on the Natchez Trace, a former Native American path connecting settlements.
John Harding bought the site in 1807 and began developing a farm he called Belle Meade or “beautiful meadow.”
This was the first Harding cabin at Belle Meade.
One of his priorities was to establish a blacksmith shop, charging for and providing services for neighbors and travelers along the Natchez Trace. Enslaved person, Ben, was Harding’s blacksmith for ten years until he escaped. Ben was never found, despite Harding’s offer of a $20 reward. Harding also had cattle and sheep in addition to a cotton gin, and a saw mill. By 1816, John Harding was boarding and breeding horses.
After Harding’s death, his son William inherited Belle Meade. William married and he and his wife Elizabeth had two daughters who survived to adulthood, Mary and Selene.
Over the decades William Harding acquired additional property, eventually owning 5,400-acres. He also held 136 enslaved people.
In 1853 he expanded his fathers house into a much larger mansion. (We were able to tour the mansion but not take photos.)
During the Civil War, Harding donated money to the Confederacy and was made a Brigadier General. He was captured by Union forces and imprisoned in the north. He paid a $20,000 bond and signed an oath of allegiance to the United States. Harding was released and confined to Belle Meade.
After the Civil War, Harding resumed horse racing and breeding operations, albeit with fewer workers. Of the 136 people he had enslaved, 72 chose to work for pay at Belle Meade.
One of those who stayed was Bob Green. Bob was an integral part of the horse training and breeding enterprise eventually enjoying international acclaim and respect.
Bob bought land off the plantation for a family home but they also used Harding’s original cabin as a residence.
There is some sweet irony in a former slave, now a horse training and breeding deity, residing in the Harding cabin.
In 1868, Harding’s daughter Selene married William Jackson, also a former Confederate Brigadier General. The couple lived at Belle Meade
The Harding-Jackson children enjoyed a playhouse built in the 1870s.
While Selene managed the household, Jackson worked with his father-in-law in the horse business. They, with Bob Green, developed Belle Meade into a nationally renowned thoroughbred farm.
By 1875, Harding and Jackson’s focus on breeding led to annual yearling sales.
They had many successful thoroughbred studs, including Bonnie Scotland and Enquirer, whose bloodlines long dominated racing in America.
In 1881, Iroquois was the first American-bred horse to win the Epsom Derby in England. Jackson attracted international attention when he bought the stallion in 1886. Iroquois was the leading sire in the United States in 1892.
Thoroughbred racing was very important in the social life of southerners and Tennessee was at the center of horse racing in the United States throughout the 1800s. During that time Belle Meade was the premiere breeding farm in the country.
The plantation carriage house was utilized by many visitors for yearling sales and other activities at Belle Meade.
At its height, Belle Meade boasted breeding thoroughbreds, the mansion, a gun club, spring house and hunting grounds. It featured a 500-acre deer park which held 200 deer, and smaller numbers of elk, bison and water buffalo.
Baseball replaced horse racing as the top American sport, and the temperance movement campaigned against horse racing and its associated gambling. When the Tennessee Legislature outlawed gambling, the focal point of horse racing in the United States shifted to Kentucky.
In 1903, both Jackson and his adult son, William Harding Jackson, died. The plantation had massive debt. The trustees of the estate decided to sell Belle Meade in 1906. The company released the deer from the fenced park.
In 1938, most of Belle Meade’s former acreage was incorporated into the independent city of Belle Meade, Tennessee. The mansion and 30 acres were preserved by five private owner families who lived in the home. In 1953 the State of Tennessee bought the mansion and a collection of outbuildings to ensure its preservation.
Belle Meade Plantation is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is now owned by a preservation association. It is operated as an attraction, museum and winery.
In 2009, Belle Meade opened Tennessee’s first Winery. Their wines specialize in using native muscadine grapes. A tasting is included with your tour ticket.
Next post: The Hermitage….Does Andrew Jackson have any redeeming qualities?
Love reading about your travels! You always included so many interesting history facts about the places you visit.
Thank you Peggy. I think there is a little bit of the “once a teacher, always a teacher” in me. Plus I just like to learn things!
Thanks for the interesting story!!
I’ve been to Andrew Jackson’s home. If he has any redeeming qualities, I’d like to hear about them!
div>Randy’s looking good!
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Love how you captured the history of the area!
Some really interesting history there! We have a native muscadine grape that we call Mustang Grapes. They are Incredibly sour, but good for making juice or jelly (with a ton of sugar) and (I’ve heard) wine as well.
The wine was quite good but we were traveling by air and didn’t really consider buying any. If we had visited early in our trip, maybe we would have purchased a bottle to drink there.
So enjoy reading about your travels. Hello
to Randy. You both look great;$