Information on:

Belle Meade Plantation

5025 Harding Pike
615-356-0501

The land known today as Belle Meade, has stood witness to centuries of human history. Native tribes used the woodlands and meadows as a place to hunt wild game. Over time a trail developed through the land that was eventually known as the old Natchez road by European settlers. Ancient tribes had used the trail as a trade route throughout the Southeast and newly arrived settlers did the same in the 18th and 19th centuries.

As the road developed, more and more settlers moved into the area and purchased the old hunting grounds for farmland. Following his marriage to Susannah Shute in 1806, John Harding purchased 200 acres of land from Daniel Dunham. Harding had worked for his father managing his farm operations and overseeing the labor of his Fathers slaves. Giles Harding had paid his son for his work and John used the money to purchase his own land. Harding had no formal education but he was a skilled farmer and businessman. Just like his father before him, Harding needed labor and he began to purchase enslaved people in the Deep South and move them to his new farm. From the beginning, the Belle Meade farm was a diverse operation. Ben worked in a small blacksmith shop near the old Natchez road and Harding used Patrick as a farm laborer. Eventually a cotton gin was built on Harding’s farm along with a grist mill and saw mill. Enslaved people were needed for all of these enterprises and slowly Harding became one of the largest slave holders in Nashville.

By 1820, Harding supervised the construction of a new brick house on a small hill and he began to call his farm “Belle Meade” or beautiful meadow.

With the popularity of thoroughbred racing moving west from Virginia and the Carolinas, Harding eventually added thoroughbred boarding and breeding to his list of services offered at Belle Meade. John’s first foray into the thoroughbred industry was with the boarding of stallions. As early as 1816, Harding placed advertisements in Nashville newspapers listing thoroughbreds standing stud at his farm.  He quickly became interested in purchasing thoroughbreds and he began to race them on local racetracks. He registered his own racing silks with the Nashville Jockey Club in 1823 and was training horses on the track at his McSpadden’s Bend Farm. With this new business enterprise, a new set of labor was needed and soon enslaved Jockeys, trainers, and grooms were added to the Belle Meade workforce.

John’s son William Giles Harding was living on the McSpadden’s Bend property and worked with his father training horses. By the time William Giles assumed management of the Belle Meade plantation in 1839, he was keenly interested in all aspects of breeding and racing. He was active in several local jockey clubs and raced at all the area tracks including Clover Bottom, Gallatin, and Nashville. By 1860, Belle Meade had grown to over 3500 acres with 136 enslaved people working for Harding and his family. 

The Civil War interrupted breeding and racing in the southern United States. General Harding was able to keep all of his thoroughbred horses, even while other farms were having their horses requisitioned by both armies. After the war, he was able to continue his horse farm and in 1867-1868, General Harding won more purses with his own horses than any man living at that time in the United States.

By 1870, only five formerly enslaved families lived at Belle Meade. Several families continued to work for the Harding family though they moved off of the farm and purchased homes and land around Nashville.

In 1867, Harding held the first sale of horses bred on his farm following the War. He was the first in Tennessee to use the auction system for selling thoroughbreds. Yearling sales began in 1867 and were held annually until 1902. With the auction system, he became the most successful thoroughbred breeder and distributor the in the State of Tennessee. When General Harding died in 1886, The Spirit of the Times praised him as having done as much to promote breeding interests as any American in the 19th century.

In 1868, General William Hicks Jackson married General Harding’s oldest daughter Selene and moved into the Belle Meade mansion. He was an avid horseman and began working with his father-in-law to expand the breeding farm. By 1875, they had decided to retire their racing silks and concentrate exclusively on breeding. After General Harding’s death, General Jackson assumed one-third ownership of the horse farm with Selene’s half-brother John and General Jackson’s brother Howell, who married Selene’s Sister Mary Elizabeth. General Jackson owned one-third of the farm, however he was the only family member working as daily manager. General Jackson’s flair for entertaining and his confident, outgoing nature helped the farm to attract thousands of people to the yearling sales. While General Harding expanded the family home in 1853, introducing the Greek revival style seen today, General Jackson modernized the interior in 1883. The family added three full bathrooms, complete with hot and cold running water and a telephone, by 1887.

Many guests from around the country were drawn to Belle Meade in the 1880s and 1890s. They saw an old Southern plantation with an old aristocratic family at its helm and many formerly enslaved employees working its vast business operations. Guests were awed by the spectacle of a farm that seemed to defy the passage of time. The stereotype of the old  Southern plantation made Belle Meade a popular destination for many including President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland, Robert Todd Lincoln, General U.S. Grant, General William T. Sherman, General Winfield Scott Hancock, and Adlai E. Stevenson. Guests were treated to old fashioned barbeques, trips to the massive deer park on the estate, and tours of the thoroughbred paddocks to see the living foundation of the success of Belle Meade.

By 1893, a weakened economy led the family into serious debt. By 1906, all of the 2600 acres that at one time belonged to Selene and General Jackson had been auctioned or sold including the Belle Meade Mansion. The “palmy days” at Belle Meade had ended.



Reviews

Mark Williams

Rating:
Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018
The Belle Meade Plantation is a great experience in history. They have done a good job recreating the manor and out buildings to what they were in the mid 1800's, and the tour was well worth the money to a history buff. I would not necessarily say this is a great day trip for young children, as there are not a ton of youth oriented activities on the average day. Still, the place is well kept and full of historical pieces and stories. The historian that walked our group around was extremely knowledgeable and friendly!

Luke Bachman

Rating:
Thursday, July 19, 2018
This had to be the best tour I have ever had! The tour guide was absolutely amazing and very knowledgeable!! The mansion was gorgeous and so was everything that was in it!! Not to mention, there is free wine tasting after the tour as well so that is really great too! The walk around after the tour is very cool as well because there is lots of information everywhere giving thorough explanations! There are horses in front of the mansion that are really amazing and you should definitely go check them out! :)

Kyle Anschuetz

Rating:
Sunday, July 29, 2018
if you read my reviews you’ll notice one thing, I review a lot of wineries. I came to Belle Meade Plantation as directed by a close friend to try the blackberry wine. I had no idea that this location has such a rich tour experience! The grounds are beautiful with many interesting buildings and of course an incredible mansion tour. You’ll have to come in person to view the interior of the mansion since photographs are not allowed inside the tour. The tour was fun and I had an exceptionally knowledgeable and dry witted tour guide. So back to the wine. There was a small collection included for sampling with the tour, the cheapest tasting comes with the 15$ self guided grounds tour but I do suggest spending 25$ to get the guided tour of the mansion. The wines were excellent. They spanned the dry to sweet gap nicely, and I bought the two sweet wines they had for sale. There are two flavors of slushees, and I of course bought the red one. I highly recommend this gem!

Greg McDonald

Rating:
Sunday, July 8, 2018
The property is beautiful, a great walk-around so arrive early for your mansion tour and walk the grounds first. The mansion tour was informative and interesting, but left a bit of disappointment. Our tour guide was very funny and the period dress was a nice touch. Unfortunately the kitchen and master bedroom, two of the most interesting areas I wanted to see, are not on the tour. The wine tasting was fun, with a delicious tasting flight. We ended up with two bottles to bring home. The new ice cream/fudge shop was fun and a nice break from the heat with fun games for the kids to play right outside.

J L

Rating:
Sunday, Aug. 5, 2018
Very nice tour and photo opportunity on a less busy day as photos go. RV and bus parking is limited to about 10 spaces. You can take pictures easily on the grounds before you buy your ticket to tour the mansion, but don't you dare miss that amazing tour. Park in the back and then stroll to the gift shop for tickets. Tours wait for a crowd to assemble, to the tune of 30 to 45 minutes wait time.

Belle Meade Plantation is not affiliated with AmericanTowns Media