Belle Meade Plantation
Belle Meade Plantation
|Location||5025 Harding Pike
|Nearest city||Nashville, Tennessee|
|Architectural style||Federal, Greek Revival|
|Governing body||The Association for the Preservation of Tennessee's Antiquities|
|NRHP Reference #||69000177|
|Added to NRHP||December 30, 1969|
Belle Meade Plantation, located in Belle Meade, Tennessee, is a historic plantation mansion whose grounds now function as a museum. It also currently serves as a wedding and event venue. Belle Meade Plantation consist of 30 remaining acres and features a winery, visitor's center, original outbuildings including the Harding cabin, dairy, carriage house, stable, mausoleum and a reconstructed slave quarters.
Early History, (1807-1865)
In 1807, Virginian John Harding bought Dunham's Station log cabin and 250 acres (100 ha) on the Natchez Trace. In the early years, Harding boarded horses for neighbors such as Andrew Jackson, and he was breeding thoroughbreds by 1816. John 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. He shipped grain to Charleston and New Orleans, and owned large tracts of land in Arkansas and Louisiana. In 1820, he began construction on a one-pile, five-bay house with hyphen wings in the Federal style.
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, 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 Mansion, Gallatin, and Nashville. Shortly after taking over the operation of Belle Meade for his father in 1839, William Giles wrote a letter to the editor of the American Turf Register. In it he said, “Blood stock here is all the go. To be without it is to be out of fashion, and destitute of taste. So I too have procured a little of the real grit, which by-and-by I hope to increase.” And increase he did. Unlike his father, William Giles was more interested in improving the blood stock of Thoroughbreds than in racing itself. He saw racing as a means for properly selecting horses (sire and dam) to produce a quality Thoroughbred.
In 1853, the house on Belle Meade was altered and enlarged into a double-pile, five-bay Greek-Revival style mansion by General William Giles Harding to reflect the success of the plantation. During this time, the Harding family prospered, building their domain into a 5,400-acre (22 km2) plantation that was renowned throughout the world for breeding champion Thoroughbred horses.
Prior to the end of the American Civil War, Belle Meade Plantation was home to a large population of enslaved African Americans. The Harding family was one of the largest slave-holding families in Nashville. John Harding brought two slaves with him when he settled at Dunham’s Station. Ben worked in the farm’s blacksmiths shop. A domestic servant named Dicey had been purchased from Giles Harding for seventy dollars on October 6, 1806. It may be inferred from the low selling-price that Dicey was an older woman, probably past childbearing age; she may have helped to rear John Harding in his youth. John purchased four slaves in 1807: Ned, Isaac, Jenny, and Molly. In 1810 John inherited Patrick, a common laborer, from his father; Giles Harding’s will implies that Patrick had worked at Belle Meade previously but was not legally transferred until that year. Initially, John and Susannah Harding worked side by side with their enslaved workers to operate the farm. John often traveled the Natchez Trace buying and selling both land and slaves.
Over the years, Belle Meade’s population grew steadily. As the farm became more specialized many of the enslaved workers developed skills, including millworking, stone masonry, woodworking, and blacksmithing. Other laborers worked as house servants. Small parts of the farm’s enslaved population were field hands, but at harvest time other workers were pulled from their jobs to work in the fields. As a blacksmith Ben was more valuable and difficult to replace than a typical slave; he ran away in 1818 and was never found. The same year John Harding purchased Ned, who escaped after only a few months. Skilled laborers who escaped slavery faced less difficulty in securing jobs in Free states and territories than field workers. It is probable that Belle Meade Plantation had at least two sets of quarters for enslaved workers and possible two cemeteries. Whitewashed cabins near the mansion housed domestic servants and skilled laborers. A second set of cabins may have existed near the “high pasture;” these less elaborate quarters would have housed field hands.
Cemeteries were generally designated by the master of the farm and were often a mile of more distant from the enslaved workers dwellings. Most funerals in the slave community were held at night. After the work day families carried the deceased to the cemetery while they sang. Although most of the enslaved population of Belle Meade lived in the quarters, some actually lived in the mansion. Each member of the Harding family had a personal servant to attend to their needs, both at home and while traveling. Enslaved attendants usually slept at the foot of the bed of their master or mistress. Enslaved women with children near the age of those of their master served as wet nurses and nannies, tending and nursing their master’s children alongside their own.
During the 1850s William Giles Harding chaired a committee charged with enforcing the expatriation from Tennessee of all unauthorized free African-Americans within Davidson County; this action was fueled by worry over supposed plots for slave insurrection and paranoia in slave-holding society. After the end of the institution of slavery in Tennessee, Harding refused to even entertain the notion of using Belle Meade’s resources to educate freedmen. Although William may have been relatively benevolent in his management of Belle Meade, he clearly did not believe that African-Americans should be given opportunities equal to those of white citizens.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, most of Belle Meade Plantation’s formerly enslaved families left their homes on the farm, but did not necessarily leave their jobs. While living in their own communities, many continued to work at Belle Meade. The Tolbert Community, located near Bellevue, was one of the first of these settlements established after the war and may have been populated by laborers from Belle Meade. Some families continued to live at Belle Meade’s old slave quarters; as the old cabins became dilapidated, new dwellings were constructed nearby. Descendents of the farm’s enslaved families lived in local cabins until the 1970s, when the quarters were demolished by neighborhood construction.
Harding Jockeys & Grooms
During the time of slavery, it was easier for plantation owners to have their enslaved workers take care of the horses than to pay someone. If these slaves showed talent, they would advance to higher positions, including jockey, groom, or trainer. These slaves were given a higher status, better treatment for these skills and had more personal freedom, opportunity to travel, and better clothes and food. The most famous African American jockey of the 1800s was Isaac Murphy, who is thought to be one of the greatest jockeys in American racing history. He won three Kentucky Derbies and forty-four percent of all races he entered, a record that has not been rivaled in recent history. Unfortunately, he died at the age of thirty-four of pneumonia, cutting his successful career short. Today he rests next to the famous horse Man O’ War in the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. After Murphy’s success, the reliance of African American jockeys dwindled, and their status declined to that of stable help. Today more blacks are interested in racing, and they are finally regaining the status they held more than one hundred years ago.
Many jockeys after growing older, larger, and thus too big to ride became trainers. One trainer, Ed Brown of Louisville, Kentucky, trained the 1877 winner of the Kentucky Derby. He owned his own racehorses and was said to be the richest African-American man in Louisville at his death in 1906.
The people who were the jockeys, trainers, and groomsmen at Belle Meade were also responsible for the farm’s success. From the start in 1807, the Harding family had slaves. By the 1810s they were becoming skilled at working with the horses. Most jockeys were slaves, young boys between the ages 8 and 12 with the perfect lightweight size for riding racehorses. These boys received preferential treatment and were able to travel the country. There is evidence that William Giles Harding was the trainer at Belle Meade, but he may have had help from some slaves on the property or white trainers he hired temporarily. In 1839 General Harding brought a young enslaved boy to work at Belle Meade. His name was Robert “Bob” Green. As he grew up working with the horses, he became General Harding’s right hand and was an expert in everything related to the Thoroughbred. At the end of the war, Bob continued to work for the horse farm, and according to an 1879 ledger book in the Belle Meade archives, he was the highest paid worker on the farm as the head hostler or groom. Bob Green became famous for his horse knowledge, and it has been said that many a gentleman in the horse business owed a debt of gratitude to Bob for his knowledge at the yearling sales. The head groom at Belle Meade always wore a white apron, and Green was seen wearing his apron even in New York City. Bob was introduced to President Grover Cleveland during his visit in 1887, and Bob led President Cleveland on a tour of the stud, including profiles of Iroquois, Bramble, Enquirer, Luke Blackburn, Great Tom.
Head Groom, Bob Green
Bob Green was instrumental in taking care of the horses in the stud’s first great sale out of state. During the train trip to New York, the Johnstown Flood of 1889 occurred. The rails were covered in water and the train was forced to detour. During their confinement in the railcars, the horses became excited and the grooms, including Bob, had to hold the horses’ heads to keep them from becoming injured. Despite their best efforts, some of the horses were injured anyway, causing the first New York sale to falter. At the end of his life, Green was forced to move from the plantation and his home at the old family cabin to his property in Nashville. Not only had he been in charge of all Thoroughbreds at Belle Meade, he owned and raced Thoroughbreds during his lifetime and was heartbroken to leave Belle Meade. In 1906, he was granted his request for burial at the farm, where he rests today in an unmarked grave. Bob had at least 4 grooms working for him including Sam Nichols who in the 1880s was offered a position at Fairview Farm but declined in order to stay working at the famous Belle Meade farm.
The American Civil War brought deprivation and danger to Belle Meade Plantation. During the Battle of Nashville, Union and Confederate forces skirmished in the front yard, and the mansion's massive stone columns were riddled with bullets. Evidence of the violence is still visible today.
Harding Era Horses, (1807-1868)
After the war, General Harding 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. He was also beginning his breeding activities in earnest, and in 1867, he held the first sale of horses bred on his farm. 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 breeding farm 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.
During and after Reconstruction, Belle Meade's reputation as a first-class breeding establishment attracted buyers from around the world for the annual yearling sales. Under the management of Hardin's sons-in-law, brothers William Hicks Jackson and Howell Edmunds Jackson, Belle Meade Stud flourished. The bloodlines of Belle Meade Plantation, primarily due to the success of "Bonnie Scotland, a Belle Meade foundation stud, include famous descendants such as Secretariat, Funny Cide, Seabiscuit, Giacamo, Mine That Bird, Smarty Jones, and Barbaro, Since the 1990s, every horse that has run the Kentucky Derby is a blood descendent of Belle Meade Plantation foundations.
As evidence of the success of this philosophy, by 1860 William Giles Harding was considered to have the largest collection of silver trophies and cups of anyone in America. The quality of the stallions standing at stud and his mares used for breeding made the annual crop of yearlings to be sold highly sought after. Starting in 1867, this annual sale attracted the most prominent horsemen of the day from across the country.
Jackson Era, (1868-1904)
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 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. General Jackson modernized the interior of Belle Meade mansion in 1883. The family added three full bathrooms, complete with hot and cold running water and a telephone, by 1887.
Jackson Era Horses, (1868-1904)
General Billy Jackson had a flair for marketing Belle Meade’s image as the finest horse-breeding establishment in America through the annual sales at Belle Meade and in New York, and the acquisition of a world famous Thoroughbred. Visitors to the mansion through the years included President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland, Robert Todd Lincoln, General Ulysses S. Grant, General William T. Sherman, General Winfield Scott Hancock, William Howard Taft, and Adlai E. Stevenson. Jackson brought Belle Meade international fame by purchasing Iroquois in 1886 to stand at stud. In 1881 Iroquois had been the first American breed and born horse to win the English Derby. This fame led Jackson to demand a remarkable $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.
Jackson continued the precedent set by General Harding of conducted yearling sales at Belle Meade from 1886 to 1888 then in 1889 began selling yearlings in New York as well. 1892 was Jackson’s most successful year of sales with 53 yearlings selling in New York for $110,050. At an average of $2,076 it would be the best prices the farm had ever received.
Financial Collapse, (1898-1904)
The next year the nation experienced a financial crisis and depression that continued throughout the decade. At the same time evangelical reform movements in Tennessee resulted in the closure of racetracks and eventually gambling by 1907. These economic and social conditions coupled with competition from horse breeders in other states were too much for Belle Meade and other Thoroughbred breeding farms in Tennessee to over come. Tennessee Thoroughbred farms closed and the horses sold at dispersal sales including at Belle Meade.
Reduction sales began in 1898 at the urging of Billy’s son William Harding Jackson, Jr. to streamline the operation. The 1902 horse sale and auction at Belle Meade brought in $172,665 and was considered to be the most successful sale of Thoroughbred horses ever held in America, but it was too late to offset mounting debt. William Hicks Jackson died in March 1903 and a few months later his son William Harding Jackson died before realizing an opportunity to manage the farm full-time. His young widow Annie Davis Jackson held several more dispersal sales in 1903 and 1904, and then the Thoroughbred stud farm that the Philadelphia Record called “the most remarkable breeding establishment in the world,” closed after almost a century of unparalleled growth and success.
Following the Jackson brothers' deaths, adverse financial conditions forced an auction of the property at the beginning of the 20th century and the fourth generation of the Harding family moved off the property. The former plantation lands formed the independent city of Belle Meade, Tennessee.
In 1953, Belle Meade Mansion and eight outbuildings on 30 acres (120,000 m2) were deeded to the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities, and is today managed by the Nashville chapter of the Association.