Belle Meade Plantation is just one of Nashville’s many historic and beloved sites. Full of rich history that tells the tale of one of the city’s most elite areas, Belle Meade Plantation is certainly a sight to see. For this edition of “Nashville Newcomer,” I went to visit this immaculate treasure with a lovely couple I met on my flight home for Christmas, who graciously invited me to take a visit to the Plantation with them, along with another young woman they know who just moved to the area and her friend from out of town.
After poking around the lovely gift shop, which offers a diverse range of items from Belle Meade souvenirs to locally-made jams, we headed upstairs to the delightful Harding House Restaurant for brunch. After filling up on dishes of breakfast classics (and a plate of impeccable biscuits), it was time for a tour of the famous mansion.
One of the most notable elements is its stately stature and elaborate Greek Revival architecture. The tour takes one all throughout the home, which belonged to the Harding and Jackson family during the 19th century, whose prominent estate was famous for its thoroughbred horse breeding and racing. This is evidenced when you first step into the lavish entry hall and are met with numerous paintings created more than a century ago of these famous horses and still hang on the walls today. The winding cantilevered staircase is a stunning feature to the home, running all the way from the bottom floor to the attic at the top of the house.
A sport as dignified as horse racing adds a unique element to Nashville’s history and was responsible for putting Belle Meade on the map. Just two of the Harding and Jackson’s famous studs include Bonnie Scotland and Iroquois, the latter of whom is described as one of the most important American thoroughbreds in the 19th century, having been the first American horse to win England’s distinguished Epsom Derby in 1881. Bonnie also holds a significant claim to fame, seeing as many of the horses that race in the Kentucky Derby have ancestry that can be traced back to this noble steed.
One of the standout rooms in the home is the library, whose dark red décor is instantly noticeable upon entering (red was the family’s racing color), with an original jockey outfit hanging above the door. Though every book in the library is original to the family, that’s not the only interesting item inside this particular room. In addition to being one of the most significant thoroughbreds in history, Iroquois was also referred to as “Jackson’s favorite pet;” so much so that he turned the horse’s hooves into ink wells after his death, which are still on display in the library.
Another particularly intriguing piece of the mansion’s history is its massive double decker porch that at one point stood as a big, open breezeway. Oddly enough, this area of the property housed the kitchen, which today features a digital touch screen stovetop used for cooking classes. The porch also acted as a reflection of the culture, with our docent explaining how it was an “architectural statement about the power struggle going on,” as it was separate from the mansion and where the slaves primarily worked.
But getting to see the inside of the exquisite estate isn’t the only highlight of the experience. Right after the tour, guests are taken to Belle Meade Winery just steps away from the mansion to sample a selection of diverse wines, which served as a pleasant surprise. But it doesn’t just serve as an end-of-the-tour treat, wine is also a vibrant part of the plantation’s history of hospitality, with the family having served various homemade wines to their many guests, including former U.S. Presidents Grover Cleveland and Ulysses S. Grant. Our tour group was treated to four different selections: the citrusy Carriage House White, an earthy Big Win Zin, the Red Muscadine and Blackberry wine, that latter of the two whose grapes are locally grown in Hampshire, TN and both of which were popular styles of wine served at the Belle Meade Plantation in its prime.
In addition to the lavish mansion, the property itself offers much for exploration. The tremendous Carriage House displays a variety of model carriages used throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. The model slave cabins give visitors a peek into what life was like for these workers, complete with pictures and a description of a handful of slaves that lived on the plantation. You’ll even stumble upon an adorable Victorian-style dollhouse built in 1870 that was a playhouse for the Harding and Jackson children.
If you’re looking for a true piece of Nashville history and a delightful spot to spend an afternoon, you can’t get more authentic than a gem like Belle Meade Plantation. Along with guided tours and a refreshing winery, the Plantation also hosts weddings and events. For more information, visit the official website.