I have been trying for two years to visit the amazing Belle Meade Plantation. Through several visits to Nashville, there was never enough time, but finally this August I managed to head south with my mom and this was the last stop on our weekend getaway. This mansion and grounds was once home to a thoroughbred horse breeding empire. In fact, in its heyday, at the turn of the twentieth century Belle Meade had with 5,400 acres, horses, dozens of barns and an international horse breeding reputation.
Our tour was amazing. We were lucky enough to have guide Rob Cross as our guide. He is the Senior Military historian at Belle Meade. He began the tour with the story of John Harding who founded Belle Meade in 1807. Harding registered his red racing silks with the Nashville Jockey Club and the red of the silks can be found in the transom above the front door in the entry way and in numerous places throughout the house.
In 1820 that Harding commissioned the building of his brick federal style on his farm Belle Meade that was later expanded into a Greek Revival style. By 1823 Harding was training horses.
Our guide Rob Cross, said by 1860, “The Harding’s were listed in the census as one of the largest land holding and slave holding families in Nashville. Though William had never held public office, he definitely had strong political opinions. He was an avid supporter of the Confederate cause and in 1861, worked to secure funds to arm and equip Nashville men to take the field for the South. The newspapers in the city reported that he had given $500,000 of his own money to support the cause.”
Like most families in the south, the Hardings too were affected by the Civil War. At the onset of the Civil War, General Harding headed the Military and Financial Board of Tennessee and was arrested by Union authorities in 1862. He was imprisoned at Fort Mackinac for six months. “It was his wife’s efforts that finally freed him,” Cross added.
The Hardings were able to hold on to the Belle Meade farm and keep their thoroughbred horses as well. He won more purses during his time than any man living in the US. In1867, Harding held the first sale of horses bred on his farm and he was the first in Tennessee to use the auction system for selling thoroughbreds. This system Cross said made him the most successful thoroughbred breeding farm and distributor in Tennessee.
When Harding’s oldest daughter married former Confederate General, William Hicks Jackson success continued. The Jackson’s entertained and attracted many who came to visit and then purchased yearlings. General Jackson and his father-in-law expanded the breeding and gave up racing.
In 1886, General Harding passed on and Jackson brought Belle Meade international fame by purchasing the horse Iroquois, who in 1881 had been the first American breed and born horse to win the English Derby. Because of this fame, Jackson was able to demand a $2,500 stud fee for Iroquois service by 1892. When Iroquois died at Belle Meade on December 17, 1899 he was still considered the most famous Thoroughbred of the time.
After Jackson’s death, his children stayed at the farm, but economic times changed. With a weakened economy and religious revival, race tracks closed and the children had to sell the farm. Belle Meade remained a private residence until 1953, when the property was deeded to the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities, and is today managed by the Nashville chapter of the Association.
We loved our tour of Belle Meade and think this is a must see when in the Nashville area! A tour offers the home and s access to other historic buildings including a dairy, horse stable, carriage house, mausoleum, gardens, and a log cabin. Onsite there is also a free wine tasting at our winery, a gift-shop and on-site restaurant. Located at 110 Leake Avenue, Nashville, TN 37205 information about tours is available at the website http://bellemeadeplantation.com/tour-the-plantation.