Belle Meade Plantation features a silver inkwell made from real horse hooves.
Yes, that was my reaction, too. But these are not any horse hooves. These earned a special place in former owner General Jackson’s Nashville plantation study.
Clearly, a horse-hoof inkwell is not an ideal desk accessory. But this one dates back 100 years and are the hooves of Iroquois, one of the most famous American race horses ever. Many, if not all, Kentucky Derby winners can trace their lineage back to this horse, whose image (and hooves) are persevered here at the Belle Meade Plantation.
Belle Meade is a historic property in Nashville, Tennessee steeped in centuries of American history … but first it celebrates the horse.
In 1806, John Harding purchases 200 acres of land here and begins working the land and acquiring human slaves. (Yes, slaves lived here and a residence turned museum on the property commemorates their history today). Harding begins building wealth by diversifying the economic potential of the land: a farm, gin mill, gristmill and sawmill operated here. In 1820, he builds a house calling it ‘Belle Meade’ or beautiful meadow.
Harding’s horse interest piques in 1816 when he recognizes a growth in the popularity in thoroughbred racing, and by 1823, he was breeding and racing his own horses. There was a special pride in American-bred stallions at the time. Even during the Civil War, after Harding’s son William Giles Harding took over, the family was able to keep their prized horses.
Eventually, according to the Belle Meade archives, William Giles Harding became the most successful breeder and distributor of thoroughbreds in Tennessee. He later passed the property to his son-in-law General Jackson, the man responsible for bringing Iroquois here.
Who is Iroquois? If you’re a racing fan, you’ll likely know: in 1881, he was the first American born horse to win the English Derby. By 1892, he lived here at Belle Meade, commanding a remarkable stud fee for the time, until he died Dec. 17, 1899, of suspicious causes.
This property’s complex history is no doubt fodder for many academic dissertations. But for visitors, it’s really about the horses.
Today, two beautiful grazing equine (not necessarily thoroughbreds) greet you at the paddock adjacent parking lot outside the entrance to the now gift store (filled with horsy stuff) and top floor café, whose specialty is the pimento cheese, fried green tomato and cornbread sandwich.
“The horses out front are primarily for show,” the front desk staff tells me. Two different horses grace the grounds every season, owned by members of the board of directors and on loan to this now not-for-profit historic site. The summer I visited, Quarter Horse crosses stood in for the Thoroughbreds that earned this property its reputation.
In its heyday, this historic estate was a sprawling eight-square miles of thoroughbred stud farm, along with hay crops and dairy and hog production – the latter two for use on the property only. Pigs slaughtered and hung in the giant smoke house (now part of the winery production – a means to support the non-profit efforts) were served at lavish parties and BBQs Belle Meade earned a reputation for throwing in the 1800s to entertain deep pocket buyers of luxury racehorses.
In the 21st Century, the Belle Meade house, beautifully restored to its 1883 Greek Revival splendor, is the focus of daily public tours. Well-informed tour guides rattle off the complex history of this estate each hour for groups of tourists. No longer are the thousands of Belle Meade guests who move through house yearly in the market for the next Kentucky Derby winner, but many do go home with one of the winery’s vintages such as Iroquois Red and Enquirer Merlot, both featuring horses on the label.
The hour-long tour of Belle Meade Plantation ends with a wine tasting in the garden. It’s almost like a mint julep track-side. Almost.
TRAVEL GUIDE: Belle Meade Plantation at 110 Leake Ave in an affluent area of Nashville (apparently, Al Gore owns a house near by) is open seven days a week 9 am to 5 pm and the $20 adult admission includes an hour-long guided tour and wine tasting. For more information about Nashville and riding opportunities check out Wet Wilderness Ride.
Want to learn more about the history of Belle Meade? Check out a book by the same title and winner of the Tennessee History award on Amazon. The estate even inspired two historical romance novels by local writer Tamera Alexander.