Plantation paradox

Visitors gaze on beauty and bondage at these historic plantations.

 
 

Molly Phillips
Published March 05, 2014

The Southern plantation is a fixture of American history that preserves in its halls the echoes of two stark realities: cash crop grandeur and cash crop slavery. For better or for worse, those mansions set on acres of lush farmland have arguably shaped and carved the course of our country more than any other industrial force of the 19th century.

To experience a plantation, one must be willing to delve into both sides of the story it tells. Its beauty will awe you, and the past it represents will humble you: One thing is for sure — you will not leave it unchanged.

When it comes to groups, these five Southern plantations in five different states have much to offer guests in scale and narrative — and don’t think that once you’ve seen one plantation, you’ve seen them all. There’s something unique to be discovered inside of each one. Whether you are looking for an overnight adventure or a brief stop along the road, each of these estates will be well worth the journey.

—  Stratford Hall  —

Stratford, Virginia

Completed more than 100 years before the start of the Civil War, Stratford Hall was already an established fixture of plantation culture before the new-money plantation boom of the mid-1800s.

Stratford was known as a hub for trade and the exchange of goods due to its location on the Potomac River; however, its greatest claim to fame may be the family that inhabited it for over 200 years: the Lees. Robert E. Lee, commanding general of the Confederate army during the Civil War, was born at Stratford Hall on January 19, 1807.

Tobacco was the original cash crop produced by the slaves at Stratford, but it quickly wore out the mountainous Virginia soil. As the land became less profitable and the tobacco markets cooled, the Lees began investing in consumer goods. Shops that produced barrels, animal hides and shoes were created on the grounds. Stratford Hall became less of a farm and more of its own village, or “a towne in itself,” as one early visitor to the plantation remarked.

Today, plan on visiting not only the main house but also the grounds, which have been restored with many gardens similar to those that would have flourished in the days of General Lee. An interesting addition is the Slave Garden, which features a number of vegetables and herbs that would have been grown by slaves living at Stratford. It provides an excellent lesson on the horticulture brought to America by African slaves.

Check the Stratford Hall website for hours of operation, as they change seasonally, and give yourself ample time to explore the many structures still in existence on the grounds. Many weekends the plantation features guest lecturers who can take you even deeper into the multilayered history of that magnificent Southern house.

www.stratfordhall.org

 

—  Belle Meade Plantation  —

Nashville, Tennessee

Music City might not be the first place you’d expect to find a Southern plantation, but Nashville is home to Belle Meade, one of the most beautiful plantations in the South.

John Harding, a rich farmer from Virginia, established Belle Meade in 1807. When Harding moved to Nashville, he quickly became one of the wealthiest landholders and slaveholders in the city. Though his original conquest was cotton farming and he did grow the estate to 5,400 acres, he soon became fascinated with another and more profitable avenue of business: horse racing.

Harding started by boarding thoroughbred stallions but soon learned that there was serious money to be made in the breeding of horses. His son, William Harding, shared his father’s passion and continued developing the estate’s collection of racehorses well after his father’s death.

During the Civil War, Harding was able to maintain the number of horses on his farm, even though many other horse farms were plummeting as Union and Confederate forces requisitioned their steeds. Visit the mansion and grounds of Belle Meade today, and you will be joining the likes of Robert Todd Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, Gen. Winfield Hancock, and President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland — all of whom have been guests at the plantation over the years.

Take a tour with a trained and costumed guide, who will lead you through the mansion’s rooms, the plantation’s grounds and the history that will bring the house to life. Special tours are also available, among them a Southern culinary tour that will bring you inside the original plantation kitchen and root cellar for custom cooking classes. On your way home, swing by the Belle Meade Winery, the latest agricultural diversification of this age-old farm.

www.bellemeadeplantation.com

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