[Transcribed from the 60th Anniversary Collector’s Edition of the Lea County Fair and Rodeo program for the event held August 5-12, 1995]
Tatum, the crossroads on the high plains, began with the arrival of James Green Tatum August 9, 1909. Mr. Tatum along with his wife Mattie and daughter Martha James made the trip from San Antonio to Roswell and traveled by wagon and team across the Pecos River to reach his 320 acre homestead on the Llano Estacado.
James Tatum had been in the mercantile business and hoped to take advantage of the need for supplies that existed in the area. Numerous settlers had begun to come into the area and this made an ideal site for a general store. The Tatum General Mercantile Company was born and an application for a post office soon followed. Three names were submitted to the Washington Postal Department – Tatum, Martha James and Bilderback (another early settler that came in 1910). The Tatum Post Office permit was granted in 1909 and Mrs. Mattie Tatum was the first postmaster.
In the operation of his store, Mr. Tatum had to make long freight hauling trips to Roswell or Elida. At times these trips would take two weeks. Meanwhile it was up to Mrs. Tatum to deliver and pick up mail besides running the general store.
By 1912 the Tatum School District had been formed. Dr. Charles Bridges, O. M. Daniel, and E. J. Fox traveled to Roswell to establish the school. Because funds were desperately needed for the building, box suppers and rodeos were held to raise the money. $400.00 was raised to pay for the building materials that were hauled from Elida in wagons. The school patrons donated their labor and James Tatum donated the two acres for that first white two-story schoolhouse. The first term began in 1912 with Miss Belle Norton as the teacher. The students included Anita Bridges, Willie, Mattie, and Earl Daniel, Robert and Lowell Fox, Dana Howard, Joseph James, Lambert Eaton, Lydia and Earl Seals and Mary London.
Tatum’s first doctor arrived in 1911. Dr. D. C. Bridges arrived with his wife who was in frail health and he filed on a homestead claim. Dr. Ruff arrived the following year to set up his practice.
Many of the smaller outlying schools consolidated with the Tatum District including Warren, Ranger Lake, McDonald, King, Bagley, Collum, Caprock, Mescalero, High Top, Gladiola, Crossroads and Pitchfork. By 1920 a new eight room school was built. In the early days of the school, church services were also held there. Reverend J. W. Allen held the first service for the Methodist Church.
By 1912, J. W. (Mood) Smith and his family had established the first drug store while W. H. Anderson put in the first hardware store in 1914. The Tatum State Bank was organized in 1916 by W. H. Anderson, M. R. Anderson, Jim Anderson, Ott Anderson, and George Bilderback. The Plains Democrat was published by J. U. Williams in 1917 and Tatum had a newspaper. Tatum could boast a hotel opened by C. P. Byles in 1915 and a blacksmith shop in 1913 with J. J. Seals as owner.
Tom Howard James brought the first telephone system to the Tatum Community in 1912. The party-line central switchboard style was located in the Tom Bess home and Georgia Bess and her daughter Jewell were the operators. Phone lines ran along the tops of fence wire and were attached to the fence posts.
Tatum Power and Light was established in the early 1920s bringing electricity to the area. A diesel plant with two engines generated about fifty kilowatts of power and you were never certain about the reliability of the system. If you could hear the hum of the engine you could get electricity, otherwise you were out of luck!
From its pioneer beginning as the center of the LIttlefield Cattle Company’s Four Lakes Ranch, Tatum has become a modern and close-knit community whose economy still depends on good ranch land and abundant water.