The Tampa River Walk

Meroba Hooker Crane

Meroba Hooker Crane (1845-1898)

Prepared by the Historical Monument Trail Selection Committee, Friends of the Riverwalk.

 

Meroba Hooker’s Family

Various sources spell her first name as “Meroba” or “Merobe” or even “Merober,” while her middle name varies between “Hair” and “Hare.”  It clearly honored her mother, Mary Amanda Hair (or Hare), who was born in 1815 in Raleigh, North Carolina.  She wed William Brinton Hooker, who had been born in Tatnall, Georgia in 1800, at her North Carolina home on August 1, 1830.  Amanda was just fifteen years old, while William was 30.  Despite becoming a husband and a father, he participated in Florida’s Second Seminole War in the 1830s.  The family lived briefly at Parrish, what now is Manatee County, as well as at Simmons Hammock, an old name for the Seffner area.  They settled in Tampa in 1842, and when Meroba was born on January 29, 1845, she was the sixth of their eleven children. 

All but two were girls, and because women changed their names at marriage, the Hookers soon became absorbed into other pioneer Hillsborough families.  They include such prominent families as Parker, Hollingsworth, and Stallings, with most settling in eastern Hillsborough or Polk County.  The Turkey Creek Cemetery near Plant City includes many descendants of this pioneer family, and Hooker’s Point on Tampa Bay is named for William B. Hooker.    

He took advantage of the federal government’s 1842 Armed Occupation Act, which granted free land to Florida settlers willing to fight the Seminoles.  Hooker was primarily a cattleman, but one source also credits him with planting the first seed of “China” oranges in Florida.  The same source says that he employed a private teacher for his numerous children, as Florida offered almost nothing in terms of public schools.  He also owned as many as twenty slaves. 

Amanda Hair Hooker died at age 48, leaving several still young children.  Her death on October 10, 1863 was in the midst of the Civil War, in which her husband was an active participant.  Nor did he mourn her for long, as Captain Hooker married Nancy McCreight Cathcart in Marion County in March 1864.  She was a war widow with seven children; her first husband had died of disease at Camp Lee, Virginia in 1862.  The marriage did not work out, and they separated in 1869.  By that time, William Hooker was “drinking heavily.”  He died two years later, in 1871, and the family monument in Oaklawn Cemetery makes no mention of his second wife.

Marriages, Motherhood, and the Orange Grove Hotel

Like her mother, Meroba Hooker wed at fifteen.  She married Simon Turman, Jr. in Tampa on September 20, 1860, less than a year before the war began.  He had been born in Indiana in 1829, but his family moved to Tampa when he was young.  He and his older brother, Solon, returned to Indiana briefly, but by 1855, he was back in Tampa and publishing a weekly newspaper, The Florida Peninsular

Simon was seventeen years older than Meroba, and they had one son, Solon Brinton Turman, before Simon Turman died in the Civil War.  He had joined a Confederate unit headed by his father-in-law, William Brinton Hooker, and was shot in northern Georgia.  Simon died on May 22, 1864, and was buried in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery.  Tragically, Meroba Hooker Turman lost three important figures in her life in less than a year:  her mother, Amanda Hair Hooker, in October 1863; her mother-in-law, Abija Cushman Turman, in January 1864; and her husband, Simon Turman, Jr. in May 1864.  At 19, she was a widow with a child. 

The rest of her life would revolve around the Orange Grove Hotel, which her father gifted to her in 1867.  It was built in 1859, just before the war began.  With wide verandas on both floors, the mansion had upwards of 20 rooms, and in his prosperous days, William Hooker intended it as a family home.  The gracious building faced Madison Street, between Jefferson and East Streets, and according to historian (and mayor) D. B. McKay, Hooker owned “the entire block on which it stood.”  The war, of course, much reduced the family’s wealth, and with the death of Amanda Hooker, the house soon became a hotel.  Historian McKay, however, chose not to mention the devastating effects of the war when he said, “it was designed as a residence for the Hooker family…but was so large that its maintenance was burdensome.”

The site is the current courthouse annex, but the historic marker there does not mention the role that the Hooker family played in creating the hotel.  Instead, credit goes to Meroba’s second husband, Henry Lafayette Crane, usually called “Judge Crane.”  She married him in 1868; she was 23, while he was 30.  He had been born in St. Augustine in 1838, but his parents were not native Southerners, and they moved back to New Jersey when the Civil War loomed.  His mother, Sophia Crane, thus faced the emotional turmoil of going North with her husband while her son stayed and fought for the South.

The Orange Grove Hotel was famous in its time, as it was the southernmost point of stagecoach lines.  Moreover, it stayed in business when stagecoaches gave way to railroads and even after the grand Tampa Bay Hotel opened on the opposite bank of the river.  Newspaper records show that “Mrs. Judge Crane” accepted an invitation from Henry and Josephine Plant to attend their grand opening in 1891.  The Orange Grove structure was not razed until 1945, almost a century after its was built.  But in the romantic style of history – especially women’s history – that was popular until recently, the most noted thing about the hotel was not that a woman ran it, but that Georgia poet Sidney Lanier wrote “Tampa Robins” when he stayed there in the winter of 1877.

Oaklawn Cemetery

After the Civil War, women in many Southern cities developed “Ladies’ Memorial Societies” (or variants of that name) to maintain cemeteries.  Historian McKay wrote:  “Little was done in the city graveyard during the post-Civil War period.  It was inevitable that it soon was overgrown with weeds.  As it was far removed from town, it was occasionally swept by fires which destroyed the few remaining cypress markers… The Ladies’ Memorial Society was later organized.  For years its officers were Mrs. H.L. Crane, president…”

Tampa’s Oaklawn Cemetery, of course, is no longer “far removed from town,” as its boundaries are Harrison, Morgan, and Jefferson streets.  It opened in 1850, and the first burial was that of Nancy C. Hagler – the sister of Meroba Hooker Crane.  Meroba would have been just five years old when Nancy died at 16 from childbirth.  Her husband, Benjamin Hagler, was sheriff in 1850, and it is likely that he was motivated to create Oaklawn to properly bury his teenage wife. 

He did not mourn her long, however, as Hagler married his sister-in-law, Martha Hooker, the following year.  There also was great age disparity in that marriage, which eventually ended in divorce.   Fifteen-year-old Martha reputably was pressured into marrying the 41-year-old sheriff by her mother, Amanda Hair Hooker.  In any case, family graves certainly gave Meroba Hooker Crane motivation for leading the Ladies’ Memorial Society and preserving Oaklawn, perhaps the most historic cemetery in Florida.