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The History of Belle Meade
John Harding founded Belle Meade Plantation in 1807. Harding purchased 250 acres of land near Richland Creek. John was from the Commonwealth of Virginia, a state known for thoroughbred racing and breeding.
John Harding and his son William Giles Harding quickly became one of the largest land and slave holding families in Nashville. John’s first foray into the thoroughbred industry was with the boarding of stallions. As early as 1816, there exist advertisements in Nashville newspapers for horses standing stud at John’s farm. In 1820, John commissioned a brick home in the Federal style on his farm, naming the estate “Belle Meade.” By this time, he owned his own horses debt free and became interested in racing them locally. 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.
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, Gallatin, and Nashville. Under his control Belle Meade grew to its’s height of 5400 acres of land and 136 enslaved workers.
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. 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.
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. 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.
Visitors to the mansion through the years included President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland, Robert Todd Lincoln, General U.S. Grant, General William T. Sherman, General Winfield Scott Hancock, and Adlai E. Stevenson.
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.