Belle Meade Plantation

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Belle Meade
Belle Meade Plantation.jpg
Belle Meade Plantation
Location5025 Harding Pike
Belle Meade, Tennessee
Coordinates36°6′20″N 86°51′54″W / 36.10556°N 86.86500°W / 36.10556; -86.86500Coordinates: 36°6′20″N 86°51′54″W / 36.10556°N 86.86500°W / 36.10556; -86.86500
Architectural styleGreek Revival
NRHP reference #69000177[1]
Added to NRHPDecember 30, 1969

Belle Meade Plantation, located in Belle Meade, Tennessee, is a historic mansion that is now operated as a museum, together with outbuildings on its 30 acres of property. In the late 19th century, the plantation encompassed roughly 5,400 acres.

A winery and visitors' center have been constructed on the property. Preserved original outbuildings, including the Harding cabin, dairy, carriage house, stable, and mausoleum may also be seen. Since about 2004, the managers of the plantation have begun to concentrate on how to tell the stories of African Americans who were held at the plantation as slaves and worked there after the Civil War. This emphasis resulted in reconstructing a typical slave cabin, which held two families.

John Harding, the founder of the Belle Meade Plantation.
His son William Giles Harding, the second owner of the Belle Meade Plantation, who inherited it in 1839 and greatly expanded it after the Civil War.

Mansion and grounds[edit]


John Harding bought a cabin and 250 acres near Natchez Trace; he began to clear and develop it with his slaves' labor. They also built their own slave quarters, which were documented as two-family cabins.

In the 1820s Harding directed slaves to build the first red brick Federal-style house on a small hill near Richland Creek. The entrance façade featured a two-story, five-bay block constructed on a limestone foundation and flanked with symmetrical one-story wings. Chimneys flanked the central block as well as the two wings.

His son William Giles Harding took over operating the plantation in 1839, as his father was developing a cotton plantation in Arkansas. Harding began to acquire more land for breeding and raising high-quality livestock, first emphasizing thoroughbred horses and adding cattle, sheep, and other breeds. He ultimately owned 5400 acres. In 1853, he had the house altered and enlarged in a Greek-Revival style to express his financial success. Stucco was applied to cover the red bricks, and a two-story veranda was created on the central block, featuring six solid limestone pillars quarried on the plantation and styled in the Doric order. A solid limestone pediment entablature is set above the columns. The left wing was removed, and the right wing was raised to two stories.

A two-story kitchen extension was attached to the house via a two-level breezeway. This was customary to keep the heat of the kitchen and risk of fire away from the main house. The breezeway was enclosed at the turn of the 20th century. By that time a dairy, carriage house, and stable had also been added. William Harding later had a mausoleum built for the interment of family members.


The 14-foot high central entrance hall runs the full length of the house from west to east, following the prevailing wind direction for natural cooling. The walls display thoroughbred horse paintings by 19th-century painters Edward Troye, Harry Hall, Henry Stull, Herbert Kittredge, and Henri De Lattre that depict the plantation's most famous horses.[2] On the north end of the hall, double parlors feature poplar wood, Tennessee's state tree. The library and dining rooms are found to the south. These rooms feature portraits of the Harding family and chandeliers that were once lit with methane gas made with manure.[3]

The central hall configuration is found on the second and third floors as well, accessed by the winding cantilevered, Second Empire-style staircase carved from cherry. The second floor contains two connected bedrooms to the north and a guest bedroom and master bedroom to the south. William Hicks Jackson, son-in-law of William Giles Harding, modernized the interior of the house in 1883, adding three full bathrooms, including one on the second floor that included a deep soaking tub and a shower, complete with hot and cold running water, which was believed to help circulation and those suffering from arthritis.[3] The third level has single rooms flanking the central hall with 8-foot high ceilings.[4]

The mansion also has a basement, which was uncommon at the time. It was used to store wine.[3]


Reconstructed slave quarters
Interior of the reconstructed slave quarters

The plantation grounds cover 30 acres (120,000 m2) and have 10 outbuildings scattered throughout the estate, including the original 1790s log cabin purchased by John Harding in 1807 with the property. Harding added the smokehouse in 1826, which was the largest in the South. As much as 20,000 pounds of pork was recorded as smoked here annually.

Other buildings were added later by William Giles Harding and his Harding-Jackson descendants: a tiny 1870's children's playhouse that was used by the Harding children; and the 1884 dairy that supplied fresh milk, cream, cheese, and produced up to 240 pounds of butter each week. The large carriage house and stables, built in 1892, showcase the Harding and Jackson families' carriage collection: it included light carriages for picnics on the grounds, a "surrey with fringe on top" for trips to town, luxury Victorian carriages for high-end social events, and a 16-passenger double-decker carriage.[5]

A visitors' center was constructed on the grounds to provide information about the plantation. A reconstructed two-room slave cabin, typical of ones provided to early slaves on the plantation, was added to the outbuildings to help interpret the history of the plantation. In 2009, the plantation opened a winery; it features Tennessee red and white wines made from the native southern grape, the muscadine, and blackberry fruit.[6]


In 1807, Virginian John Harding bought Dunham's Station log cabin and 250 acres (100 ha) on the Natchez Trace, an ancient Native American path connecting their settlements in present-day Tennessee and Mississippi. He began to develop a plantation, naming it "Belle Meade" — French for beautiful meadow. Harding operated various businesses, such as a blacksmith shop, cotton gin, and grist and saw mills, staffed by slave labor. By 1816, Harding was boarding horses for neighbors such as Andrew Jackson and breeding thoroughbreds, as well as racing them. Middle Tennessee became known for the raising of purebred livestock, including cattle, sheep and others. In 1823 Harding registered his own racing silks with the Nashville Jockey Club (an association of thoroughbred owners). He trained horses on the track at his farm at McSpadden's Bend, which he bought for his son William.

William Giles Harding first worked the McSpadden Bend property along the Cumberland River. He inherited Belle Meade Plantation in 1839; during the next decades he acquired additional property to total 5,400-acre (22 km2) plantation; by the time of the Civil War, he held 136 enslaved African Americans to provide the labor.[7] In 1859 he incorporated his father's house into a much larger mansion.[8] With the onset of the Civil War in 1861, Harding had to suspend his racing and breeding operations. As a staunch supporter of the Confederate States of America, he donated $500,000 to the costs of the Confederate States Army. After Union forces took control of the state it 1862, Harding was arrested. He was sent North and imprisoned in Fort Mackinac in Michigan for six months before being released.

Confederate General James Chalmers occupied Belle Meade as his headquarters during the Battle of Nashville. Harding somehow kept all of his thoroughbred horses, although the horses at most other plantations were requisitioned by both armies. Early on December 15, 1864, Union and Confederate forces fought on the front yard outside the mansion. Damage from bullets is still visible on the stone columns of the house.[9]

After the Civil War, Harding resumed his successful horse farming operations, although he reduced the workforce as he tried to deal with free labor. Of the 136 slaves who had lived on the plantation prior to the war, 72 workers chose to work for pay with Harding. Most lived in housing off the property. Those who remained in the former slave cabins as part of their compensation had to sign a contract he drew up of "18 Rules & Regulations" that reduced pay for breaking the rules.[7]

Confederate General William Hicks Jackson, husband of Selene (née Harding); they were the third owners of the Belle Meade Plantation.

In 1868, Harding's eldest daughter Selene married widower William Hicks Jackson, who brought a son to the marriage. He had served in the Confederate Army, reaching the rank of general. His first wife Elizabeth, née McGavock, daughter of former Nashville mayor Randal McGavock and owner of Carnton Plantation, had died the previous year. Harding father agreed to the marriage if the couple agreed to live at Belle Meade following their wedding. Selene managed the household affairs, and Jackson co-managed the farm with his father-in-law Harding.[8] Among their children were son William Harding Jackson (1874-1903).

In 1875, Harding and Jackson decided to retire the racing silks and focus exclusively on breeding. Harding held annual yearling sales at the plantation, raising its reputation in the thoroughbred world. The two men developed the plantation into a nationally renowned thoroughbred farm and showplace for high-quality livestock. The farm also sold breeding stock of ponies, Alderney cattle, Cotswold sheep, and Cashmere goats. The estate also featured a 600-acre deer park.

A gravestone for the stallion Enquirer

Belle Meade had many successful thoroughbred studs, including Bonnie Scotland and Enquirer, whose bloodlines still dominate modern racing.[citation needed] Jackson attracted international fame in 1886 by buying the stallion Iroquois to stand at stud; the horse was ranked in 1892 as the leading sire in the United States. In 1881, Iroquois had been the first American-bred Thoroughbred to win the Epsom Derby in England.[10]

William Jackson died in 1903, and his adult son William Harding Jackson later the same year. Due to financial problems since the Panic of 1893 and evangelical reformist pressure against horse racing and associated gambling, the trustee of the estate decided to sell the plantation in 1906.

A business syndicate called The Belle Meade Land Company purchased the plantation to develop a residential community that was known as Belle Meade. After raising private donations, the company released the deer from the fenced park. In 1938, the former plantation lands were incorporated into the independent city of Belle Meade, Tennessee.[11]

The mansion and 30 acres were reserved by private owners. It had a series of owners until 1953, when the State of Tennessee bought the mansion and eight outbuildings on the property to ensure its preservation. The state deeded the property to the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities. It is operated as a museum and event space. In the 1970s, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


  1. ^ National Park Service (2009-03-13). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.
  2. ^ "Belle Meade Plantation's Permanent Collection". Retrieved 30 Dec 2014.
  3. ^ a b c "Colorful Stories Awaken Tennessee's Past at Belle Meade Plantation". Retrieved 30 Dec 2014.
  4. ^ "The Architecture of Belle Meade". Retrieved 30 Dec 2014.
  5. ^ "Belle Meade Plantation, Nashville, Tennessee". Retrieved 30 Dec 2014.
  6. ^ Sullivan, Kathy. "The Winery at Belle Meade Plantation". Wine Trail Traveler. Retrieved 25 December 2017.
  7. ^ a b West, Kay (13 Feb 2014). "In a new project, Belle Meade Plantation excavates its history of slavery — and relations between its black and white residents". Nashville Scene. Retrieved 19 Jan 2015.
  8. ^ a b Ridley Wills, II, "William Giles Harding", The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, 25 December 2009
  9. ^ "Middle Tennessee: Hood's 1864 Campaign". Civil War Traveler.
  10. ^ "The Equestrian Lineages of Belle Meade Plantation", Belle Meade Plantation, n.d.; accessed 11 Aug 2018
  11. ^ "Belle Meade has wealth of 'beautiful meadows,' horse racing history, family roots". Archived from the original on 19 January 2015. Retrieved 19 Jan 2015.

Further reading[edit]

  • Emma Bragg, Susanna McGavock Carter: The Trusted Housekeeper Slave of William Giles Harding of Nashville's Belle Meade Plantation (Belle Meade Plantation: 1993), biography of author's ancestor, a mixed-race woman born free who was illegally held as a slave and given to Elizabeth McGavock when she married William Giles Harding.
  • Tamera Alexander has a series of historical novels, starting with To Whisper Her Name (2012), that are set at Belle Meade Plantation during and after the Civil War, and combine fictional characters with historic figures, such as the owners of the plantation at the time and some of their documented slaves, by name.

External links[edit]