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Belle Meade Plantation: Iroquois and Belle Meade

Belle Meade was one of the most famous horse farms as well as being one of the most famous historic plantation homes in the South. 


Belle Meade Plantation was built in 1819 by John Harding (1777-1865) and Susannah Shute Harding (1785-1845). Among the earliest important settlers in the mid-state and particularly on the west side of Nashville, the Hardings forged their path along the Natchez Trace route and Richland Creek. They wed in 1806, and the next year, they purchased 250 acres with a log cabin fort from Daniel Dunham’s family called Dunham Station. The cabin sat on the east side of Richland Creek about seven miles southwest of Fort Nashborough. They added another side to it.


Thirteen years later, the larger brick 2 story Federal style home they built is located on Harding Rd. at Leake Ave - a few hundred yards away from the cabins. The initial cabin, the renovation, and the larger brick home were all called Belle Meade. The name came from Susannah’s parents estate in Pennsylvania named Belle Meade, and John told her that he would build her a home like Belle Meade. 


Susannah’s sister was Elizabeth Shute Spence of Casa Loma. They enlarged their compound to include a dairy shed and a smokehouse. Crops, cattle and horses were raised on their extensive acreage. 


Their son, Gen. William Giles Harding (1808-1886), married (first wife) Mary Selena McNairy (1812-1837) in 1826. Mary Selena died of yellow fever eleven years later. Giles took over management of the Belle Meade operation in 1838 (it was 1,300 acres) and inherited the home in 1868 after John’s death. John was beginning to develop a new 10, 000 acre cotton plantation in Arkansas near Plum Point Bend. Giles had been managing his McSpadden Bend farm (now Pennington Bend) which his father John had given to him. 


After Mary’s death, in 1840, Gen. Harding married Elizabeth Irwin McGavock (1819-1867) whose father Randal McGavock owned Carnton. They had daughters Selena and Mary Elizabeth. In 1853 with the success of the operation and the plantation having grown to 5,400 acres, he enlarged the mansion to the Greek Revival style it is currently seen. 

He continued to own the McSpadden Bend property whose house was called Bellevue. The family became successful in breeding thoroughbreds and racing. 


General William Hicks “Red” Jackson (1835-1903) married Gen. Harding’s daughter Selene Harding (1846-1892) in 1868 with the proviso that they live at Belle Meade. Gen. Jackson had been a career Federal Army officer and West Point graduate. He resigned after the Civil War erupted and served in the Confederate Army. Post-war, initially, Gen. Jackson had returned to Tennessee and oversaw his father’s cotton plantation. After his wife Elizabeth died in 1867, he married Selene Harding. Because of the hardships after the Civil War, Belle Meade operations focused on breeding.  


By 1866, Belle Meade Plantation had reached 5,300 acres. His brother, The Hon. Howell Edmunds Jackson married Selena’s sister Mary Harding in 1873, and as a wedding gift, the couple received a couple thousand acres west of Belle Meade where they built West Meade mansion. Judge Howell served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States for 2 years, 1893-95, until his death at Belle Meade. 


The last two decades of the nineteenth century saw two more highly visible improvements to the Belle Meade operations. In 1884, Gen. Jackson constructed a Gothic Revival stone building to hold a steam-powered butter churn. Soon, Belle Meade Dairy became a major source of revenue for the estate. In 1892, the Carriage House was built for the Jackson family vehicles adjacent to the stables. Gen. Jackson had gained a reputation for the quality of purebred horses he raised. The Harding/Jackson family lived at Belle Meade until the 1890s. Belle Meade plantation was widely known for thoroughbred horse breeding (Bonnie Scotland, Enquirer, Iroquois). In 1903, both Gen. William Hicks Jackson and his son William Harding Jackson died, and the family elected to sell the plantation to the Belle Meade Land Company which included Jacob McGavock (J.M.) Dickinson, Jesse M. Overton, J.C. Welling, J.T. Harahan, and Stuyvesant Fish. The company divided and sold lots on the 2,600 acre former plantation starting in 1906. 


At its sale, Belle Meade was the oldest and largest thoroughbred farm in the country. In 1906, Judge Jacob McGavock Dickinson bought the Belle Meade Mansion and 40 acres. He was second cousin to Elizabeth Harding. His oldest son, John Overton Dickinson, and wife Helen Trenholm Dickinson with their family moved into the mansion, and John managed Belle Meade Farm. Helen was a writer and poet with published works. Three years later, In 1909, Helen died suddenly from influenza, and soon thereafter so did John. 


At that point, Judge Dickinson sold the property to James O. Leake. Then in 1916, Walter Oliver Parmer (1855-1932) and Elizabeth Dunkin Parmer bought the plantation and 24 acres at public auction (after many attempts to purchase prior) and moved his own thoroughbred operation to Belle Meade. He and Elizabeth made some renovations.He was an accomplished thoroughbred breeder with another farm called Edenwold on Gallatin Road (purchased in 1907). Originally from Greeneville, AL, the Parmers first moved to Williamson County in 1883 where they purchased a 107 acre livestock farm near Woodbine off Nolensville Rd. until 1907. He sold that to purchase Edenwold in Gallatin. He and partner Bill Lyle owned a mule business (Parmer & Lyle) from 1885-1910 in downtown Nashville. He, George M. Hendrie and John W. Price started a race course in Windsor, Ontario which prospered quickly. He was a director of the North Carolina and St. Louis Railroad and of the Fort Myers-Southern Railroad. Parmer also became a member and was on the finance committee of the American National Bank of Nashville, the American Securities Company, and the American Associates. Parmer also acquired the Palm Cottage in Naples, FL from 1916-1932. In 1922, Parmer provided most of the funds for a new field house (Parmer Field House) when Vanderbilt University built a new football stadium named Dudley Field. Parmer also donated land on the Belle Meade Plantation to Davidson County which built an elementary school named in his honor, Parmer Elementary on Leake Ave. It opened in 1928, closed in 1982, and burned down in 1985. It is now a local park of several acres. 


After Parmer died, the mansion was sold to Meredith Marecitte Caldwell (1892-1961) and Ellen Thomas Caldwell (1894-1970). Meredith’s father was James E. Caldwell of Longview and his brother was Rogers C. Caldwell of Brentwood House. Meredith was vice-president with James E. Caldwell & Co., a financial services firm. Ellen’s father, John W. Thomas, Jr., was president of the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis railroad. They bought Belle Meade from Parmer’s estate after their home on Caldwell Lane burned down. Meredith’s father, James, founded the Nashville Union Stockyards in 1924, and Meredith then owned it and served as president. During the Second World War, their son, Meredith, Jr., served as a lieutenant in Merrill’s Marauders, a hand-picked group of soldiers who were long-range penetration special operations that fought in the China-Burma-India Theater. 


In 1938, Belle Meade was incorporated as a separate city. In 1953, the Caldwells offered the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities an option to buy Belle Meade and the deal worked out. At the time, the leadership of Belle Meade Methodist Church was also interested in the property but that effort failed. The City of Nashville purchased Belle Meade mansion and 30 acres. The Belle Meade Chapter of the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities now operates the property. 


In the early 1980s, Irene Jackson Wills, whose ancestors were connected to Belle Meade, joined the board and helped save the property financially. She also helped spearhead the renovation of the home and the carriage house. Her husband is Ridley Wills II, local businessman, author and historian.


John Harding named the property Belle Meade, French for “beautiful meadow.” It is also known as the “Queen of the Southern Plantations.” Belle Meade Plantation is one of the largest, and most well-known, tourist attractions in Tennessee. NRHP 1969  Various affiliated family and other name connections are remembered locally: Belle Meade Blvd, Carriage Hill, Deer Park Dr. Harding Road, Iroquois Ave., Jackson Blvd, Leake Ave. Paddock Lane, Parmer Park, Scotland Place.  See Belair, Carnton, Casa Loma, Clifflawn, Devon Farm, Travellers Rest, Two Rivers, West Meade


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