Willie Sion Franklin (W. S. F.) Tatum was born September 17, 1858 to Robert William Tatum and Martha Nancy Green Tatum in McNairy County, Tennessee. He had one brother, Barca L. Tatum and one sister, Mattie Tatum (Motley). His early childhood was spent on a farm near Bethel Springs, Tennessee, with his mother passing away when he was 5 and the family moving closer to Bethel Springs when he was 8. At age 16, he became employed at his father's grocery store in Bethel Springs, where he worked until age 21 without wages. His education consisted of two five month terms and one three month term in a subscription school.
On June 8, 1881, Tatum married Rebecca Anne O’Neal, also of McNairy County Tenn. The couple had three sons, West O’Neal (W.O.) Tatum and twins, Will Sion (W.S.) and Frank Murry (F.M.) Tatum.
In September 1881, Tatum bought his father’s business largely on credit. After paying off the debt, Tatum formed a partnership with his brother-in-law, F. O’Neal, and began buying and selling lumber. After a visit in 1892 to lands purchased in Forrest County, Mississippi in 1891 and seeing the richness of the timber there, the two established a sawmill in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 1893 named the Tatum Lumber Company. Mr. O’Neal left the partnership and sold his interest to Tatum after a series of difficulties soon after. In 1898, the Tatum family moved into their home on Main and McLeod Streets in Hattiesburg. Tatum closed the mill in 1903, but continued to buy and sell timber and timber land in the area. During this time in 1904, the family traveled to the Fourth World Sunday School Convention in Palestine for three months.
In 1906, Tatum reopened the mill. The mill closed again in 1914 after it was found all the timber within reach of oxen that transported the timber had been cleared. Tatum began construction of a new mill in the Bonhomie area of Forrest County which began operating in 1916 and continued until 1937. The new sawmill was one mile south of the old site and contained ponds, a large double band sawmill, kilns, yard, and railroad facilities connected to the New Orleans and New England Railroad, Gulf, Mobile, and Northern Railroad, and Gulf and Ship Island Railroad. Timber from the approx. 50,000 acres of land in Forrest and Lamar Counties and approx. 13,000 acres in Greene County at that time was transported by rail from the land to the mill pond.
In 1911, Tatum purchased the land where present day William Carey University stands. Tatum held the land, wishing the site to be the Mississippi Normal College (now University of Southern Mississippi). When the decision was made to place the Mississippi Normal College at the Hardy Street location, Tatum donated the land to the Mississippi Baptist Convention, who in agreed to maintain a four year college on the premises.
In 1924, the Tatum family purchased 30 miles of railroad from the Gulf, Mobile and Northern Railroad between Hattiesburg and Beaumont to bring timber from Greene County. This became the Bonhomie and Hattiesburg Southern Railroad.
In 1920, W. S. F. Tatum turned over his business affairs and mill operation to his three sons and became active in local politics. To fill the unexpired term of T. E. Batson, Tatum was elected mayor of Hattiesburg on August 22, 1922. In 1924, he lost reelection to B. D. Moore, but won again in 1928. His first term priority was road paving. His second term accomplishments included extensive additions to the municipal water and sewer system, creation of a public library, a municipal airport, the Saenger Theater, and creation of the movement to bring natural gas to Hattiesburg.
The first natural gas company was the Public Service Corporation of Mississippi. When the company went bankrupt, the Tatum family purchased it and renamed it the “Willmut Gas and Oil Company” in 1933.
W. S. F. Tatum was reelected again in 1932, but lost in 1936 to Travis H. Boykin.
The Tatum Lumber Company mill was built from money borrowed from Hibernia Bank in New Orleans, Louisiana. When the bank experienced financial difficulty in 1933, W. S. F. Tatum was appointed to a directorship of the bank by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation on May 24, 1933. Tatum Lumber Company became one of the principal stockholders of the Hibernia Bank.
After their father’s retirement, the three sons operated the mill until it closed in 1938. Reportedly, West Tatum handled the office work, Frank the timber docks, and Will the yards and planning mill.
Other projects Tatum and his sons were instrumental in creating for Hattiesburg include the Citizens Bank of Hattiesburg, additions to the Main Street Methodist Church, the Methodist Hospital and the Forrest Hotel in downtown Hattiesburg. When the United States Post Office in Hattiesburg was dedicated on July 25, 1934, Mayor Tatum delivered a speech.
In the 1940s, Will Tatum began an interest in oil drilling, including a very profitable venture in Centralia, Illinois.
In 1937, W. S. F. Tatum retired from politics at the age of 79. He died October 7, 1949 at the age of 91 of internal bleeding (hemorrhage).
In 1953, the Bonhomie and Hattiesburg Southern Railroad was sold to Fernwood, Columbia and Gulf Railroad, which was absorbed by the Illinois Central Railroad in 1973.
In 1964, the Tatum family land in Lamar County known as the Tatum Salt Dome was used by the United States Atomic Energy Commission for a series of tests known as “Project Dribble.” The purpose of the tests was to test the effectiveness of detecting underground nuclear detonations with seismographic evidence. The first detonation, Project Salmon, would blast a cavity in the natural salt formations deep underground. The detonation occurred at 10:00am, October 22, 1964 and was reportedly felt for miles. Two years later on December 3, 1966, the commission detonated a second device, codenamed Project Sterling, in the cavity of the first device with the intention to prove that the effect of an explosion in a cavity would be less than in solid rock, as Project Salmon was. The effect was proven.
The Tatum family continues to reside in the area of Hattiesburg as active members of the community as of this writing.