The land known as Belle Meade stood witness to centuries of human history. Native tribes used the woodlands and meadows as a place to hunt wild game. Over time, a trail developed through the land, eventually known as the old Natchez road by European settlers. Ancient tribes used the trail as a trade route in the Southeast, and newly arrived settlers did the same in the 18th and 19th centuries.
As the road developed, more and more settlers moved into the area and purchased the old hunting grounds for farmland. Following his marriage to Susannah Shute in 1806, John Harding purchased 250 acres of land from Daniel Dunham. Harding had worked for his father by managing his farm and overseeing the labor of his father’s slaves. Giles Harding had paid his son for his work and John used the money to purchase his own land. Harding had no formal education, but he was a skilled farmer and businessman. Just like his father before him, Harding needed labor and he purchased enslaved people in the Deep South and moved them to his new farm. Ben, one of Harding’s slaves, worked in a small blacksmith shop near the old Natchez road and Harding used Patrick as a farm laborer. From the beginning, the Belle Meade farm was a diverse operation. Eventually a cotton gin, grist mill, and saw mill were all built. Enslaved people were needed for all of these enterprises and slowly Harding became one of the largest slave holders in Nashville.
By 1820, Harding supervised the construction of a new brick house on a small hill and began to call his farm “Belle Meade” or beautiful meadow.
With the popularity of thoroughbred racing moving west from Virginia and the Carolinas, Harding added thoroughbred boarding and breeding to his list of services offered at Belle Meade. Harding’s first foray into the thoroughbred industry involved the boarding of stallions. As early as 1816, Harding placed advertisements in Nashville newspapers listing thoroughbreds standing stud at his farm. He became interested in purchasing thoroughbreds and began to race them on local racetracks. He 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. With this business enterprise, a new set of labor was needed and enslaved jockeys, trainers, and grooms were added to the Belle Meade workforce.
The Civil War Days: 1840-1867
John Harding’s son William Giles Harding lived on the McSpadden’s Bend property and worked with his father training horses. When William Giles assumed management of Belle Meade plantation in 1839, he was keenly interested in all aspects of breeding and racing. He was active in several local jockey clubs and raced at the area tracks including Clover Bottom, Gallatin, and Nashville. By 1860, Belle Meade had grown to 3,500 acres with 136 enslaved people working for the Harding family.
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.
In 1867, Harding held the first sale of horses bred on his farm following the War. 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 breeder 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.
Post Civil War Days and Success: 1870-1900
By 1870, only five formerly enslaved families lived at Belle Meade. Several families continued to work for the Harding family, though they moved off the farm and purchased homes and land around Nashville.
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 exclusively 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 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 and Selene modernized the interior in 1883. By 1887, the family added three full bathrooms, complete with hot and cold running water and a telephone.
Many guests from around the country were drawn to Belle Meade in the 1880’s and 1890’s. They saw an old Southern plantation with an aristocratic family at its helm and many formerly enslaved employees working its vast business operations. Guests were awed by a farm that seemed to defy the passage of time. The stereotype of the old Southern plantation made Belle Meade a popular destination for many visitors, including President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland, Robert Todd Lincoln, General U.S. Grant, General William T. Sherman, General Winfield Scott Hancock, and Adlai E. Stevenson. Guests were treated to old fashioned barbecues, trips to the massive deer park on the estate, and tours of the thoroughbred paddocks in order to see the success of Belle Meade.
Declining Success and Dispersal: 1893-1906
By 1893, a weakened economy led the family into serious debt. In 1906, the 2600 acres that belonged to Selene and General Jackson had been auctioned or sold, including the Belle Meade Mansion. The “palmy days” at Belle Meade had ended.
Hours of Operations
Open Daily 9am-5pm
Tours start every 30-45 minutes with the last tour at 4pm.