Stepping through the antebellum doorway of the Belle Meade Mansion, I feel as if I have time traveled to a different era—an era rich in southern history and heritage, a family legacy that has withstood both prosperity and loss.
In 1806 upon his marriage, John Harding purchased 200 acres of land on the Old Natchez Road and began his longtime dream of owning a thoroughbred horse farm. The Hardings began their life simply—constructing a one-room house on the acreage. However, by 1820 and with the addition of more land, Harding began constructing a large brick federal-style, three-story mansion on a small hill, which he called “Belle Meade,” meaning “beautiful meadow.”
Entering the large, dim foyer, I almost feel out of place in my modern day clothing and cell phone in hand. The walls are covered with paintings of the Harding’s horses—17 to be exact—and to my right stands a coatrack laden with black top hats and walking sticks as if the family has just returned home and is awaiting company. The ruby-red transom above the front door, original to the home, floods the entryway with a red glow, highlighting the spiral staircase at the opposite end.
My docent, dressed in period clothing, retells stories of the Hardings and life on the plantation. From room to room, different stories come to life. In the robin egg blue parlor, adjacent to the foyer, large beveled windows peer out to the expansive green lawn. The rooms, filled with framed photographs, antique books and intricately carved furnishings, appear untouched and unscathed; just like they would have almost 200 years ago.
From the dining room, to the library, to the gentleman’s study, each room is reminiscent of southern gentility and appears similar in design and style. Unlike many homes during this time period, the mansion boasts avant-garde carpeting with different patterns and colors which was a forward thinking concept for this era. The lighting in the rooms, although dim to recreate a traditional appearance, shines down from large, ornate chandeliers.
Another ruby-red transom greets you upon walking upstairs. The second floor of the mansion contains three bedrooms ranging in colors from pink, to blue, to a floral pattern. Spacious and filled with dark wood antique furniture, each room has its own character and is special in its own way.
One of the most unexpected finds in the house was the master bathroom, furnished with a large white claw-footed bathtub, toilet and custom made shower that encircles the occupant with spraying water. The master bedroom and nursery do not fall short, either.
After my guided tour ends, I walked back onto the front lawn, staring at the mansion and reveling in its beauty. It’s hard to believe an actual Civil War battle occurred here. The skirmish, involving 500 men, left musket ball holes in the columns that can still be seen today.
Over the years, the home and grounds have seen many changes going from Federal to Greek revival style, running water, central air conditioning and a decline in acreage. Fortunately in 1953, the home and grounds were deeded to the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities. In my tour group, I was the only one from the Nashville area and I couldn’t help but feel slightly ashamed that I haven’t visited the plantation before. It’s hard to believe that just a few miles away from downtown, this living history remains intact and is sought out by visitors from all over the world.
An unexpected treat was the winery located a few feet away from the main house within the plantation boundaries. The only winery found in Nashville, it serves the same blackberry wine made from the original 200-year-old recipe along with a selection of other wines made from grapes indigenous to the South. The plantation also holds a restaurant, smokehouse, the original one-room Harding house, carriages, stables and much more.
Ann Ferrell, a former special events manager for Nashville’s famous Opryland Hotel, hosted many off-site events at the Plantation.
“Even though the Opryland had a lot of different venues, sometimes people just wanted to host an event at the Belle Meade Mansion because it’s so special and has a lot of history. They had really outstanding docents that, to me, made it very real and made people feel like what it would have been on the plantation,” said Ferrell.
Visiting the plantation is like taking a page out of a history book and having the chance to relive it. In an automated world where technology and a fast-paced lifestyle rule, it’s nice to step back and enjoy the calmness and simplicity of an era that no longer exists—an era that even though now is a thing of the past, can still be revisited and recaptured at the Belle Meade Plantation.
If you would like to take a step back in time, the Belle Meade Plantation is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., excluding holidays, with tours beginning at 9:30 a.m. and the last tour at 4 p.m. To find out more information about the plantation, admission rates and directions, go to http://bellemeadeplantation.com or call 615-356-0501.