When people visit Nashville, they are often most interested in the famed country music that downtown Nashville is known for. But a great place to visit that is only about twenty minutes from the iconic Ryman Auditorium is a unique piece of Tennessee history called Belle Meade Plantation. This incredible plantation was built in the 19th century. And it is easy to partake in some historic tours of its beautiful grounds. So read on as we share 6 reasons to visit Belle Meade Plantation.
Belle Meade History
The century-long history of Belle Meade starts in 1807 when planter John Harding bought a 250 acre tract of land only 7 miles from Nashville. The story of Belle Meade ended in 1906 when the Harding-Jackson family, plagued by debt would be forced to sell off the estate.
Belle Meade was largely used as a thoroughbred racing and stud farm. The Belle Meade racing silks are some of the longest registered in American history. In 1871, William Giles Harding purchased a horse named Bonnie Scotland that became one of the most successful sires in American thoroughbred history. His dependents represent 2/3rds of all Kentucky Derby winners as well as 11 of the 13 Triple Crown winners.
The Belle Meade historical site has also done an extensive job in preserving the records and stories of the numerous enslaved people who lived and labored at the estate. This makes the work at Belle Meade one of the most all encompassing historical preservation projects on southern history.
The Mansion Tour
The highlight of a trip to Belle Meade is a tour of the Greek revival mansion. This beautiful home was built in the 19th century before the Civil War. And when you take the tour you will be assigned a very knowledgable tour guide who will take you through the mansion and show you the exquisite rooms and artifacts of the mansion.
There are several highlights as you tour the rooms. First, when you step up to the beautiful front porch, you will enter the home. Then, in the hall there are the portraits of the famous thoroughbreds that made the plantation famous. A portrait of Iroquois, who was the first American thoroughbred to win the Epsom Derby in England is the star of this collection. Next, in the rooms of the first floor, there are several living rooms and the dining room, all filled with original artifacts of the plantation.
The second floor has bedrooms where you will see toys that the children played with and vintage wedding dresses that brides in the family wore. And throughout the home there are portraits of family members and even prominent friends of the family like President Andrew Jackson himself.
Since photography inside the mansion is not allowed, it is only possible to see the inside of the home by taking the mansion tour.
At one point in time, Belle Meade covered approximately 5,400 acres of land making it one of the largest private estates in all of Tennessee history. However, much of that land was sold in the 20th century to became the Tennessee town of Belle Meade. Today the historical site of Belle Meade encompasses 30 acres. Visitors can explore the natural beauty of Belle Meade either on foot or on a Segway tour.
The grounds are covered in majestic shade trees making fall one of the best times to visit. There are also several historic buildings on the property including the original single log cabin that was on the property when John Harding originally bought it.
some of the most interesting buildings on property include a dairy building, a reconstructed slave cabin, one of Tennessee’s largest smokehouses, a doll house, and a winery. In addition to exploring the outbuildings, make sure to save time to enjoy a scoop of ice cream and play some yard games in the activities area.
Wine and Bourbon Tours
A great thing to enjoy at Belle Meade is the wine and bourbon tasting experiences offered at the site. Belle Meade has been making bourbon for over 150 years. You can partake in an hour long bourbon tasting experience on the premises and learn about the history of bourbon and sample some bourbon cocktails.
The Belle Meade Winery is newer to the plantation (since 2009). But it is still the first winery in Nashville. There are several ways you can enjoy wine at Belle Meade. There is complimentary wine tasting at the end of the Mansion Tour.
You can also enjoy some meals with wine pairings set up in advance at the on site restaurant. Or you can simply visit the wine gift shops and peruse the multiple varieties available. Regardless of what else you do at Belle Meade, a wine or bourbon tasting is a must.
Journey to Jubilee Tour
Over 100 enslaved people labored at Belle Meade throughout its years as a working plantation. The Journey to Jubilee tour attempts to tell the stories of the enslaved African-Americans at Belle Meade. The tour gives the unique perspective of the lives of the enslaved people who tended the horses, grew the crops, built and cared for the buildings, and did a vast variety of other tasks at the plantation.
The tour goes through a reconstructed slave cabin. It is filled with artifacts and stories of the lives of the African- Americans who labored at Belle Meade. The stories were collected through an oral history project. Several descendants of the enslaved were interviewed to gather family accounts of their ancestor’s lives.
The result of this project is that, for the first time, the history of the African-American laborers at Belle Meade is finally coming to light.
Many artifacts show the true horrors of human enslavement. The shackles pictured below, for example, show that violence was often used as a method to keep the enslaved in check.
The Journey to Jubilee project attempts to have an open discussion of the lives of the enslaved. In this way, the whole true story of Belle Meade may be brought into the open.
Erik and Kelly walking by the stables of Belle Meade
Back in its glory days, Belle Meade was most famous for being a thoroughbred horse farm. When you visit the carriage house and horse stable, you will see remnants and artifacts of those glory days.
One of the most famous thoroughbred racehorses from Belle Meade was Iroquois. He was the first American bred horse to win the English Epsom Derby.
The most famous Sire at Belle Meade is Bonnie Scotland. He also happens to be one of the most famous sires in all American history.
As seen by this diagram hanging in the stables, Bonnie Scotland’s line has sired some of the most famous race horses in all of thoroughbred history. These include Secretariat and 11 of the 13 Triple Crown winners.
There are no horses in the carriage house. But there are many of the restored carriages and sleds that the family used during Belle Meade’s 100 year history. These restored carriages really give you a connection to how this privileged family lived during the 19th century.
The stable and carriage house are a must see when trying to understand the unique history of Belle Meade.
When you visit Music City, make sure to set aside some time to visit the queen of the Tennessee plantations: Belle Meade. You will have a great experience as you enter a bygone era of southern history.