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What was Uncle Henry Kirkum’s?

Ben Steelman

Uncle Henry Kirkum’s was the last, and probably the most famous, of a number of “oyster roasts,” informal seafood restaurants that used to be in the Masonboro region of New Hanover County. Founded in 1924, it lasted until 1990, when the last Kirkum finally retired and sold the property

Broadcaster David Brinkley, a hometown boy, wrote about it in a memorable travel piece in the Dec. 1, 1975, Washington Post.

The original waterfront location went up for sale in 1992 and is now part of the Oyster Bay subdivision, off Masonboro Loop Road.

Founder of the feast was Henry M. Kirkum (1872-1954), a fisherman who “came to the Sound” at the age of 18. His “oyster roast” was more like an informal campout than a meal. The late John Burney told food columnist Carroll Leggett about going there in the old days, when it had dirt floors and long tables where customers were invited to shuck their own oysters. For years, lighting was by kerosene lamp.

Uncle Henry Kirkum’s Oyster Roast ad from the StarNews

Uncle Henry Kirkum’s Oyster Roast was a local landmark for years. Founded in 1924, it lasted until 1990, when the last Kirkum finally retired and sold the property. It’s now part of the Oyster Bay subdivision.

Uncle Henry served more than just oysters. Leggett remembered driving down from Raleigh for the clam fritters. In the 1950s, the Kirkums advertised seafood dinners, chicken and even steak.

What made the place legendary, however, were the oysters — generally from Stump Sound, steamed on metal sheets over an open fire, while covered in damp tow sacks. The results left mouths watering.

University of North Carolina Wilmington historian Melton McLaurin, who grew up in Cumberland County outside Fayetteville, remembered that stops at Uncle Henry’s were a must when his family vacationed at nearby Carolina Beach in the 1950s. McLaurin included a brief tribute to Uncle Henry’s in the expanded edition of his memoir, “Separate Pasts.”

By the time StarNews reporter Cammy Bain visited in 1976, the facilities consisted of one community dining room, three smaller dining rooms, a kitchen and a separate shed out back, where the oysters were shoveled onto the roast. These replaced a larger house — including a dining area that extended out over the water — that had been blown down by Hurricane Hazel in 1954.

“Huge mounds of oyster and clam shells piled along the water’s edge attest to the amount of seafood that has been consumed in these modest surroundings over the years,” Bain wrote.

(The roast itself sat on Whiskey Creek, close to Cabbage Inlet.)

For years, Uncle Henry’s worked on an all-you-can-eat policy. By the 1970s, however, Bain noted, the high price of oysters forced the Kirkums to raise prices to $6 per peck. By then, teams of boys would come around to the tables to shuck the oysters for the diners.

After the elder Kirkum’s death in 1953, Uncle Henry’s was taken over by his son Elwood Kirkum and his daughter Eugenia “Genie” Kirkum, who oversaw the kitchen for decades. In 1975, Elwood Kirkum retired and turned over the restaurant to his brother Harlee.

As Crockette Hewlett and Mona Smalley noted in “Between the Creeks, Revisited,” the Kirkum operation was once just one of many area oyster roasts. Others were operated by the Cazaux sisters, by Lumsden and Frank Farrow, and by Fred Pepper with George Farrow.

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3 Responses to “ What was Uncle Henry Kirkum’s?”

  1. On March 5, 2011 at 5:12 am Bob Carter wrote:

    Can remember going here once in the late 50’s..great oysters from what memory allows me to remember; but as a young teenager think I was more interested in other food at the time…goes to show you how wrong we can be at that age :)

  2. On April 6, 2011 at 9:19 am Sam wrote:

    I’m not sure of the exact date of Uncle Henry’s closing, but I know it was open in the early 80s. That is when I came to Wilmington to attend UNCW. I had an aunt who lived here that was always one of my favorites. She called to invite me for dinner not long after I arrived. She and her boyfriend wanted to take me out for a nice evening.

    I had always thought of her as glamorous and fun. I think I was expecting an evening of martinis, maybe at Cape Fear Country Club or Bridge Tender. I drove over to her house and we all rode together in her Lincoln. I don’t mind saying I was somewhat disappointed as we made our way down the dirt road to Uncle’s Henry’s. They had picked the place because they wanted me to experience something unique. I pretended to be thrilled…

    On that hot September evening we ate in a rustic, open cottage “cooled” by fans. There was plenty of fried seafood, hushpuppies and iced tea, but not a martini in sight. The views were of large lawns covered by ancient oaks that led down to the water. Of course, I was gracious and appreciative of the meal. I don’t think it was until many years later that I realized how special that evening was.

    There were many other meals shared in more upscale places through the years, but that night has become a treasured memory. Aunt Pauline is gone now, along with Uncle Henry’s. I close my eyes and and I can hear my aunt’s laughter along with the hum of those fans and screened doors that squeaked as they slammed shut. It seems like yesterday…

  3. On June 3, 2011 at 12:55 am anita ladner russo wrote:

    I remember Uncle Henry’s Restaurant very well, I think all 3 of my brothers worked there at one time or another. It happened to be all 3 of thems first job they ever had. Mr. Kirkum was always good about giving the local kids a chance to make some money, as in local I mean Masonboro Sound area.I’ve been living on the sound since 1965 and boy its not like it use to be. we use to go swimming right there by uncle Henry’s and you never passed anyone on the street that you didn’t know.That was when you could walk everywhere you went and didn’t have to worry about being robbed or some stranger stopping to try and pick you up.I was in my teens the prime of my life, and I’m telling you I couldn’t have picked a better place to grow up in. I only wish my 3 children that have also grown up here could have experienced the old Masonboro Sound in Wilmington.Thank-you for letting me remenise.Anita

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