Belle Meade – the fifth richest city in the USA per capita – is about 3.5 square miles and lies on the outskirts of Nashville, TN. And amidst all the luxurious manor-like mansions, sits the old horse plantation that is now a museum to times past. With its slave quarters and family mausoleum, it is a sharp reminder of the South as it once was. I watched Django on the plane on the way over, so the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves were still fresh in my mind as I toured the plantation. The mind boggles at the thought that here, in what’s now a celebrity-laden suburb, 136 slaves were freed in 1865. But it positively baulks at the thought that they were ever enslaved in the first place.
I know that Sherman was no angel (His policy of expanding warfare beyond the battlefield and into the civilian infrastructure, called ‘total warfare’ and ‘scorched earth’ strategies, has led to him being known as one of the fathers of modern warfare. He is considered by some to be one of the Civil War’s greatest heroes, but residents of the American southeast, especially Georgia, pretty much still hate him.) I know that many atrocities were committed on both sides during the Civil War. I know that many innocent people suffered at the hands of those ‘damn Yankees’ and yet I simply cannot get my head around the idea that one set of humans could enslave another. I know I’m naive and I know that slavery is still a twenty-first-century issue but still, man’s inhumanity to man will never cease to amaze me.
As we wandered the grounds and took it all in, I was surprised to learn that this was the place for horses back in its day. Thoroughbred breeding started in 1816 and in 1823, John Harding first registered his racing silks with the Nashville Jockey Club. And, in 1881, Iroquois, one of the Belle Meade horses, won the Epsom Derby in the UK – the first American horse to do so. So prized was he at Belle Meade that he had 60 acres to himself while all the other residents had a mere 20. So reluctant was the family to let him go, that when he died, his hooves were inlaid with silver and turned into ink wells. A tad too gory for my taste.
Perhaps the most famous horse I’ve never heard of was Bonnie Scotland (another Belle Meade luminary, purchased by Harding when the horse was 19) … but some that I have heard of can trace their ancestry back to him, including Seabiscuit and Secretariat.
As we toured the neighbourhood, our guide (one of Belle Meade’s finest) pointed out Al Gore’s house and Vince Gill’s and many more that simply didn’t register. Apparently burglary is a big issue – high-class silver burglary – with one resident reporting the theft of a 20lb silver ashtray. How far Belle Meade has come since 1865.
As RB trotted out the names of who lived where, and I parried with questions about who had married whom since I last immersed myself in country music, I was struck again by the familiarity of it all. We spoke of these country stars as if we knew them, knew them. Such is Nashville. The city where everyone knows everyone by face and by name.