Belle Meade Plantation
What I learned during my stay in Nashville.
Belle Meade plantation was founded in 1807 by a Virginian with a keen interest in horses, John Harding. While visiting Nashville, I was interested in touring an antebellum mansion and Belle Meade is a fantastic example of this type of mansion. The original house was a brick Federal style home. The greek revival style pictured above is the work of William Hicks Jackson, who married Selene Harding, the grand-daughter of John Harding.
The guided tour inside the home did not allow for photography. The guides dressed in period costumes. Our guide introduced us to one of the more colorful member of the family that owned Belle Meade – Selene Harding. The holes you see in the column next to the guide are bullet holes when Union soldiers fired upon Belle Meade. Selene Harding (the granddaughter) was standing in front of the columns during the volley of gunfire shouting to Confederate soldiers to defend the honor of this home. Yikes!
While being courted by her future husband, William Hicks Jackson, her friends teased her about a flashy diamond ring he had given her. They told her it couldn’t be a real diamond as how could he afford such a ‘blingy’ ring? To defend her beau from his critics, she marched into her daddy’s office and used the ring to sign her name in a glass window. Real diamonds, as she knew, cut glass. You can still see her signature carved into a pane of glass in the study.
Clearly, Selene Harding-Jackson was the first ‘steel magnolia’.
Pictured below is a beautiful carriage house that sits adjacent to Belle Meade built in the 1880′s:
Belle Meade was not the only horse breeder in and around Nashville. During the Civil War horses from neighboring estates were confiscated by both the Union and Confederate army’s. Belle Meade escaped this fate by having Bob Green hide the horses in the expansive property of Belle Meade. Every few weeks, he moved the horses to different areas on the estate to prevent confiscation by the either army. Thanks to the actions of Bob Green, many famous race horses can trace a genetic link to the breeding practices at Belle Meade.
With the flamboyant marketing skills of William Hicks Jackson, Belle Meade rose to its place in history for establishing winning bloodlines in Thoroughbred race horses. In 1886 Jackson brought to Belle Meade the thoroughbred, Iroquois, to stand at stud. In 1881 Iroquois was the first American born horse to win the English Derby. Interesting factoid – when Iroquois died in 1899, his front hooves were removed and converted into an ashtray. Today, they are on display at Belle Meade.
The good times at Belle Meade came to an end with the confluence of two events. The country suffering through an economic depression and the rise of a temperance movement in Tennessee. Essentially, disposable income dried up and gambling, such as horse racing, was prohibited. These two events dramatically reduced the income stream at Belle Meade. In an effort to pay off the sizable debt incurred in this stagnant economy,reduction sales of horses and household items began in 1889 through 1904 when the Thoroughbred stud farm closed its doors. The house went through several owners until March 25th, 1953, when the State of Tennessee purchased the home and deeded it in trust to the APTA as a monument to the Old South.
Today Belle Meade is a vital link to preserving our nation’s rich history and Belle Meade’s tradition of hospitality via the Belle Meade Winery.
Belle Mead has one of the oldest continuously used racing silks, registered in 1823, the silk is a solid burgundy with no distinguishing marks, dashes or designs. Belle Meade’s Winery celebrates that tradition with their Racing Silk Red dessert wine.
The white horse pictured above is Gamma, one of Belle Meade’s famous racing mares. Tasting notes accompanying this wine sound absolutely delicious! ”With aromas of apple pie and citrus, this semi-dry full-bodied table wine offers a crisp, fruity taste of Tennessee! Serve with seafood and cheese or as an aperitif.”
Slave quarters at Belle Meade.
Living in Philadelphia, you are surrounded by the tale of Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad. You don’t see slave quarters. I’m not going to rehash the past, but I’m glad this part of the story was not swept under the carpet and forgotten. Good or bad, this is part of our Nation’s story. While what I’ve read of William Giles Harding (Selene’s dad), he did not believe in the equality of blacks, yet most of the slaves working with him in the horse trading and training business stayed on after their emancipation and even refused employment elsewhere. Clearly, this was a more complex situation than I envision.
Visiting Belle Meade was delightful and educational and well worth a visit if your travel plans take you to Nashville.
Has anyone else visited this plantation? What are your thoughts about its history?