Colorful Stories Awaken Tennessee’s Past at Belle Meade Plantation
As soon as you turn into the long drive to Belle Meade Plantation, you are instantly transported to a different time. Everything is charming and has been solidified in its history. Soon the plantation comes into view, rising from the trees to serve as a reminder of what once was. As I gazed, wide-eyed, through my windshield, the Belle Meade Plantation beckoned for a closer look. After all, there are bullet holes in one of its front pillars from a Civil War skirmish and it was home to some of Tennessee’s finest racehorses.
The grounds, home to an impressive carriage house, a darling doll house, dairy and smokehouse and the 1806 cabin John Harding and his young wife Susannah Shute lived in before Belle Meade Plantation was built, have a hushed reverence to them even on a bright and sunny Saturday afternoon. John Harding acquired lots of land and decided to turn Belle Meade Plantation into a thoroughbred farm, breeding some of the best horses in the world. The lineage of War Admiral, Secretariat and Seabiscuit can still be traced back to Belle Meade Plantation. Iroquois, one of Belle Meade’s trophy thoroughbreds, was the first American-bred horse to win the Epsom Derby at Epsom Downs Racecourse.
The tour of the home is quite impressive, given by a period-dressed guide, as you go through pocket doors, hallways, climb winding staircases and peek into bedrooms adorned with 19th century artifacts, paintings and canopied beds.
John Harding and Susannah had three surviving children, Elizabeth, William and Amanda. In 1829 William married Mary Selena McNairy and she gave him five children, with only one surviving to adulthood, John Harding II. Mary Selena’s health failed after bearing five children and she died in 1837. William remarried, this time to Elizabeth McGavock, daughter of Randall McGavock who owned Carnton Plantation. Elizabeth and William had two daughters, Selene and Elizabeth. Selene was boisterous and independent. She loved interior design so she covered up the “drab” wooden floors with wall-to-wall carpeting and had indoor plumbing installed. The gorgeous and grand chandeliers were lit with methane gas made with manure.
The parlor was one of my favorite rooms because it housed porcelain vases from Paris dating to 1853. The vases represented love and death, death having a vicious snake carved on the outside. Original furniture like plush couches and tables along with heavy, embroidered drapery are on display. The wallpapers, with their intricate and elegant designs, enhance the accents of the home rather than stand out in stark contrast. All the wood throughout the home is made of the poplar tree, Tennessee’s state tree.
We then moved on to the library where the family would do water colors, read and write letters on the comfortable, ruby red silk furniture. There are two things that are worth noting in the room: the first is the portrait of William Harding with a beard. He decided to grow a protest beard until the Confederates won the Civil War. He even donated $500,000 to the army’s efforts. The second are the ensconced hooves of Iroquois which were used as inkwells upon the horse’s death.
Moving into the dining room, you can see the second best china which was used for family dinners. From the beautiful floral arrangements to the shining plates, silver and cut-glass goblets, I smiled in spite of myself at the opulence the family found themselves indulging in every night, which they simply deemed as “normal”. There’s a portrait of Selene in the dining room and an interesting story behind her eyes. When General William Hicks Jackson proposed to Selene, he presented her a huge engagement ring. She wondered if it was real so she wrote her name in her father’s office window pane. The carving is still in the windowpane, breathing even more life into the wonderful story.
Exiting the dining room, come into the foyer and climb up the winding staircase to the bedrooms where William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt and Grover Cleveland stayed. Be sure to spend substantial amount of time seeing the nursery with the antiquated toys and portraits and the bathroom which was refurbished to include a deep soaking tub and a shower, imported from Chicago and believed to help circulation and those suffering from arthritis.
Make your way downstairs to the kitchen where it was remodeled in 1883 and has stayed the same since then. In the 1880s a battery-run fan was installed. The house also has a basement which wasn’t common back then and housed the Belle Meade Plantation wine.
If you want to spend an afternoon engrossed in history, colorful stories and loveable characters, go to the Belle Meade Plantation. Tours are every day Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are $16 to tour the mansion, the surrounding property and participate in a free wine tasting. If you just want to tour the property, tickets are $10. The gift shop is filled with cute items and don’t forget to stop in at Harding House, the cozy on-site restaurant.
Have you ever visited Belle Meade Plantation? Let me know about your experience in the comments below!