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History Corner: Belle Meade Deer Park Once a Notable Attraction

Sep 28 2016
Posted by: The Contributor
History Corner: Belle Meade Deer Park Once a Notable Attraction

By: Ridley Wills II

 

William Giles Harding married Selena McNairy, the 17-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Nathaniel McNairy, on Nov. 19, 1829. The young couple started their married life on William Giles’s father’s Stones River Plantation. Their farm was a 579-acre tract that John Harding had purchased in 1827. Because his land contained both woods and fields, game abounded. In 1833 or 1834, William Giles and his father took five deer from McSpadden’s Bend to Belle Meade and established a deer park there so that the deer could be safe and multiply. In time, the herd grew to several hundred and the deer park became a landmark and an unofficial park for Davidson County.

One of the earliest accounts of the deer park was published in 1854. It said that the park “contained 14 buffalo and as many as 200 deer.” Harding later introduced elk from the Northwest to the park and eventually imported Indian water-oxen for his menagerie. In 1858, the Republican Banner and Nashville Whig contained an article on a picnic at the deer park. The scribe wrote, “Everybody knows something of this delightful spot.” He added that the park’s natural beauties were unrivaled particularly to “one who spends his days and nights in a dusty city.” Park visitors sometimes brought a complete band with them, but, more frequently, only a violin or banjo player.

William Giles Harding married Selena McNairy, the 17-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Nathaniel McNairy, on Nov. 19, 1829. The young couple started their married life on William Giles’s father’s Stones River Plantation. Their farm was a 579-acre tract that John Harding had purchased in 1827. Because his land contained both woods and fields, game abounded. In 1833 or 1834, William Giles and his father took five deer from McSpadden’s Bend to Belle Meade and established a deer park there so that the deer could be safe and multiply. In time, the herd grew to several hundred and the deer park became a landmark and an unofficial park for Davidson County.

As the number of visitors to the park increased, it became increasingly difficult to control them. To counter this, Mrs. Harding had her slave put up a sign at the front gate saying the park was closed on Sundays. Visitors still came to the house Sunday afternoons and begged permission to go in, saying that Sunday was the only time they could visit. Mrs. Harding usually relented. 

During the Federal occupation of Nashville, Union soldiers wanted to see the park. Elizabeth Harding in a May 15, 1862, letter to her husband William Giles Harding (then a political prisoner at Fort Mackinac, Mich.) said, “Some Federals have just called to go in the park and Mr. Hague (William Hague, Belle Meade stock manager) has gone out to escort them; I like him to be about on such occasions; he does ‘the honors’ to the best of his ability, and they seem satisfied with his quaker ways.” Less than four months later, marauding Federal soldiers killed 60 of the 100 and all but one of the estimated 12 or 14 buffalo in the deer park.

After the war, a good many of the former slaves chose to stay at Belle Meade, where they worked for General Harding under a contract system. One of the rules was that the laborers and their families were not allowed to shoot or trap partridges, mockingbirds or squirrels in the deer park. With the loss of many animals from the deer park during the war, Gen. Harding and his son-in-law, Gen. William H. Jackson, gradually restocked the herd in the deer park. As was the case before the Civil War, the 425-acre deer park was not cultivated. When guests came to Belle Meade, they invariably either rode or walked throughout the park to see the deer which were confined by the stone wall that surrounded it. Because the deer could easily jump the wall, wood slates were built on top of the walls to make the enclosure twelve feet high.

Historian George Bancroft visited Nashville in April 1887 to examine the papers of deceased President James K. Polk. On the last day of his visit, he and his German valet Hermann and a committee of the Tennessee Historical Society drove out to Belle Meade. Gen. William H. Jackson and Judge Howell E. Jackson greeted them on the front lawn. After 30 minutes of conversation, Gen. Jackson invited Bancroft and his party to drive through the deer park. A half-dozen horses were quickly saddled and brought to the front door, along with several carriages for Bancroft, who was 85-years-old, and others. A reporter for the Daily American, who accompanied the group, noticed that Hermann seemed “as unexcitable and immovable as stone until taken through the park.” However, when “a drove of perhaps 200 deer dashed by, he said, in an excited voice, ‘Well, did you ever see anything like that?’ Bancroft’s voice trembled when he responded, ‘Never in my life.’”

  President Grover Cleveland and his wife visited Belle Meade that October. They too visited the deer park where Uncle Bob Green and some of his helpers corralled the deer and drove them past the chief executive. The president turned to Gen. Jackson and said, "That was a splendid sight General. It made my nerves tingle. I never saw such an exhibition before."

 At the Tennessee Centennial Celebration in 1897, Gen. Jackson admired a large buck elk, named Ben Yaka, in the midway. The elk stood nearly 16 hands high and weighed as much as a horse. Jackson bought Ben Yaka and its mate Nellie, and took them to his deer park when the celebration ended. Renamed Tommy, the huge elk became the park’s most notorious resident. Jackson and park visitors realized that Tommy was anything but shy. One spring, he was particularly rambunctious and turned over a buggy. On another occasion, two prominent Nashvillians got too close to Tommy and “were forced to take to a friendly tree and only escaped after Tommy had decided he had kept them aloft long enough.”

 In the fall of 1904, both Gen. Jackson and his son William Harding were dead and Belle Meade’s long career as a breeding establishment was over and the farm was for sale. In November, “a splendid array of household furniture, historical relics and one of the best racehorse libraries in the country were sold.” With the earlier sale of the horses, only Gen. Harding’s household goods and a herd of 250 deer and seven elk remained.

Nashvillians were interested in their fate. Moses H. Cone, a North Carolina cotton merchant, purchased 20 of the deer to put on his estate at Blowing Rock. However, when an attempt was made to capture a dozen of the deer by driving them into a corral, “the frenzied animals dashed themselves against the sides of the enclosure and were either killed or severely maimed.” One big buck sprang into the air and cleared the 12-foot high fence “as though it was a small log.” James B. Richardson, the administrator of his son-in-law William Harding Jackson’s estate, called off the sale, not wanting to sell the animals for slaughter.

In May 1906, when construction began on roads through the deer park, the dynamite frightened the deer, so the State of Tennessee bought the entire herd for $600 and turned them loose. Col. Joseph H. Acklen, state game warden, bought one elk and took it to his mansion as a pet. Later, dogs severely injured it, causing Acklen to have one of the elk’s legs amputated. Finding it impossible to keep the elk at his home, Acklen gave it to the inmates at the Tennessee State Prison. They fashioned an artificial leg for it. In 1906, Nashville’s first unofficial zoo closed. Fortunately, there was a real zoo a few miles away called Glendale that opened in 1888. Still, Nashvillians would miss the Belle Meade deer park. 

It is likely the deer, so prevalent in the city of Belle Meade today, are descendants of the deer once in the Belle Meade deer park.


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