If you were to tell someone to meet you where Robert’s Bayou meets Arnica Bay, they’d probably ask, “Where’s that?” Tell them to meet you at Pirates Cove, however, and they’d ask, “What time?”
Many around here know that the legendary third-generation beach shack in Elberta has a history littered with bushwackers, cheeseburgers, sandy canines and salty regulars. But few know that the bar and restaurant wouldn’t be what it is today without Civil War privateers, a high-end Chicago hotel and a German immigrant initiative in Baldwin County.
Operated by brothers Paul and Karl Mueller (although ownership remains in the hands of their mother Eileen), Pirates Cove is a living tapestry of innumerable employees, regulars and “riff raff.” This is its unlikely story — in their words.
What’s the Cove’s early history?
Paul Mueller, co-manager: The structure was built somewhere around 1935 as part of the Intracoastal Waterway project. It was a CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) work camp. There were cottages along the beach that were housing for the officers, and there was a bunkhouse for enlisted personnel. So they lived here, and the restaurant was a general store. So it was just the supply spot.
The name Pirates Cove has to do with Admiral Semmes and this area being a haven for [Civil War-era] privateers. The legend is that the privateers knew how to get in and out of Perdido Pass and survive. They would use really small ships — I mean 40 or 50 feet long. They were very shallow-draft, and they could come in on high tide where, if they were being pursued, larger ships couldn’t get in. You’ve got to remember, there was no Intracoastal Waterway. So the passageway between here and Big Lagoon was super shallow.
Eileen Mueller, owner: What [Semmes] really was, was a pirate. And he used to come up into Robert’s Bayou. There’s a little crook in it, and you can hide back there. If I’ve got a sailboat, you can’t see the mast. You can’t see anything. And so it was his little hidey hole after he pirated somebody. But that is actually a fact because I talked to a college professor who taught at UWF, and he had documentation of that.
Karl Mueller, co-manager: Raphael Semmes actually had a house at the head of the Bayou. They say that you can find the fireplace foundation for his house back in the woods, but I’ve never seen it.
Paul Mueller: It’s been operating under the name Pirates Cove for a really long time — before my family owned it. In fact, that building has two roofs on it. The original roof is still there underneath the tall roof, and it has Pirates Cove painted on the roof so the Navy pilots could read it as they were flying over, because Wolf Field was active.
Karl Mueller: Our grandparents bought Pirates Cove in December of ’56. My grandfather (Paul Helmuth) actually owned a newspaper in Chicago. The Abendpost.
Eileen Mueller: That was my father-in-law. Readership started going off, more and more people were just speaking English, and the paper just failed, so they had to find some other way to make a living.
Paul Mueller: My grandmother Elsa’s family owned the Bismarck Hotel in Chicago in the 1920s and ‘30s. So she grew up in a very fancy hotel.
Karl Mueller: So to come here, from Chicago and a nice neighborhood, to super-rural Alabama and live in a little cottage — I can’t imagine the culture shock that had to happen. My great-grandfather had been part of the Baldwin County Colonization Board … that group owned a huge chunk of Baldwin County and they would sell the farmland off to immigrants so they could get started in the United States. So that was their connection with the area.
Eileen Mueller: I have to say, the reason this place is here is because of the stubbornness of [my mother-in-law] Elsa because they moved down here in the winter of ’56 and her husband died either in January or February, six or eight weeks after they moved here. And so she had it by herself with a 14-year-old boy, and she kept it together, and it was nothing like this. There were no people here. I mean, there would be days when the total take would be $15. She was a very determined woman.
Jeanette Bornholt, patron and Foley Librarian: Shortly after the purchase, Mr. Mueller died and his wife Elsa, known to all as “Miss Kitty,” with her young son managed it through the years. Miss Kitty was a most unique, very intelligent woman from what we Southern folks would call “upper crust” society. A number of years ago, I was fortunate to be invited to one of Miss Kitty’s rare but always memorable dinners where all the best dining service was used to serve about 12 young women of the area, with Eileen assisting her mother-in-law. Miss Kitty did the cooking herself, and let me tell you, my memory of that delicious meal still serves me.
Paul Mueller: She upscaled the food because she was taught how to cook in those [hotel] kitchens, you know? Really high-end food. She would cook whatever she felt like cooking. From what I understood, if you requested something, you were guaranteed not to get it — just a tough German lady.
My grandmother passed away in 1980. My father at that point was basically running this place, as he did until he died of cancer in 1996. As for me, I didn’t expect to pick up the reins when I was 26 years old, but life intervened.
What about all the dogs?
Paul Mueller: We had a lot of dogs as kids around here. I mean, at one point I think we had five or six. Because we had dogs, then other people would just bring theirs or people that were living in the marina would have a dog on their boat and that dog would be here. I don’t know, it just happened.
Eileen Mueller: The most famous dog was Tiki.
Karl Mueller: Or Riff Raff. He was named after a derogatory comment that somebody made about our customers (laughs).
Eileen Mueller: But Tiki was an English Mastiff. She was enormous. We’ve just always had dogs. Our dogs kind of look askance at ones that are on leashes. They don’t know what to think about that.
Paul Mueller: Tiki could eat a cheeseburger in 1.6 seconds. I think that was her record. And not drop anything.
Rick Cheatwood, longtime employee: We’ve had some beautiful dogs. When I die, I want to come back as a dog at Pirates Cove.
I got here June 6, I think, of ’87. I’m from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, right outside of Tulsa. My sister lived here, and they had a boat here. I was living in Colorado and hating the cold. So I got in a car and drove all the way here.
I started out bartending, cooking, just about everything. I worked from 8 in the morning ’til midnight sometimes … then I bought a camper and parked it right here. It’s been here since then. Well, three different ones.
I left Oklahoma when I was 19, so I’ve been here for basically my whole life. One of my favorite memories — it was right around Christmas, and it was about 5 or 6 degrees. We got into the cooler because it was warmer in there than it was in the restaurant. [Paul’s] dad walked in and looked, and he started laughing. He says, “Tell them to finish their beers, and we’re just going to close it up.”
Their father once told me that as long as I worked from April to September, I could take the winter off and still have a job, so I’ve done that. I go to Mexico every year, Central America, then I come back and go to work. I’ve been doing that for 30 years. I used to keep my money in the safe. I wouldn’t hardly spend any of it. And Paul’s dad would hand me my envelope the day before I left.
One time, my mother was in the doctor’s office in Tulsa. And a nurse there said that they took a vacation to the Gulf Coast of Alabama. And my mom said, “Oh really? Where’d you go?”
And the lady said, “A place called Pirates Cove.”
“Really? Did you see a guy there that was tall behind the bar?”
And that the nurse says, “You mean Rick?”
So it’s a small world (laughs).
Karl Mueller: You’ll want to talk to [bartender] Lucia, but Lucia’s stories are sometimes less than factual. If she doesn’t remember a detail, she just makes up a new one.
Lucia Wills, longtime employee: I’ve worked here a long time, and I love it. It’s part of my world. I grew up in Lillian, on Soldier Creek. I lived on the same street as a boy who worked here. I was picking tomatoes at a local farm, and he said, “Come work at the Cove,” so I did. That was in 1988. I’ve had other jobs, I did other things, but this was always my weekend job. Eventually, we had a bartender retire, and Karl let me have the job. That was about 20 years ago, and I’ve done this full-time since.
As a 13-year-old, it seemed like a different planet. And as I’ve grown older I realize it is, and it was. We had a huge marina, so there were always these people from all over the world sitting right at the bar telling all these wild stories about their sailing lives. We’re from a small town, so even having someone here like Rick Cheatwood; he’s a stellar human and he’s also an against-the-grain kind of guy. So to have him here was even mega-interesting.
As for how it’s changed over my time here, we’ve gotten really busy, and we’ve become a very hot spot. We get a lot of tourists who have never been to the area. Back in the day, you knew everyone that came in here, where they lived, who their mama was, who their kids were. Kids ran around wild because there were just 100 people here instead of 1,000. When we first switched to our computer system, we had … a file box from A to Z, and it had people’s names in it, with all these pieces of paper. And that’s how you ran a tab. So kids would just come in and they’d be like, “Put it on my parents’ tab,” and without even a name, because we knew all these children. And at the end of every season, they would bill these guys.
My earliest dog memories are of Toby and Riff Raff, and those were both the Muellers’ dogs. Toby was a big Great Dane lab mix and Riff Raff, I think, was probably a yellow lab of some sort. We’ve always had dogs, and they’ve always been awesome. They’ve become part of Pirates Cove’s charms. Customers, when they come now and they don’t see dogs, want to know where the dogs are.
Paul Mueller: We had another dog named Ink Spot. His favorite place to lay was behind the bar, right under the bartender’s feet. And you could step on him and he didn’t care.
Lucia Wills: Several years ago, a box washed up on this beach that had dog ashes in it that these people had put off to sea. And this box belonged to people that had a boat here at one time. We had the box, and it was at the bar, and they recognized it as theirs!
Of course, there was the legendary Tiki, and she was really our first Cove dog that was more obsessed with hanging at the Cove than any other dog. Tiki just loved the deck and the people and the burgers and the attention. She was a very notable dog, not to mention she was a 200-pound gentle giant.
I love this place, and I take as much charge as I can. I do whatever is needed. I’m cool as a cucumber now. Certainly in my early 30s a super-stressful day was not as easy to manage. Now I’m of the mindset that everyone is here to have a good time. People only want drinks and food — neither of those things are stressful. The job is very active, it’s very engaging, but the stress is all up to Paul and Karl.
Bushwackers and Cheeseburgers
Paul Mueller: On super busy days, we’ll serve 3,000 bushwackers. And I was totally against us buying the machine to make those things … because I thought it cost too much money. Oh, was I so wrong (laughs). We’re now the number one Malibu independent retailer in the country. Like, we became a topic of conversation at their board meetings because all of a sudden, there’s this anomaly that shows up: What is this place? Why are they on this list?
Jack Nenstiel, patron: I’ve been going to Pirates Cove since I was a little kid. When I was 12, I got my boating license, and that was the same year I got Lana, my golden retriever, for Christmas. I didn’t start going by myself until I was 15 or 16, but when we went, Lana had free reign at the Cove. When I was ready to leave, I’d just whistle and she’d come around a corner, eating someone’s cheeseburgers or pizza. She was a beggar from day one.
When Lana was about 14, she got sick several times. Thinking the end was near, every Saturday or Sunday we’d take her to the Cove and get her a cheeseburger. That was her weekly thing. She hung on for another two years (laughs). I guess she had something to live for every week.
I wouldn’t call it the little hole-in-the-wall dive bar any more. I don’t remember people knowing what it was when I was a kid. I don’t even remember if they had T-shirts. Paul and Karl have adapted and done great. They handle the crowds and all that.
Emily, a patron from Louisiana: We’ve been coming here for at least 10 years. In fact, one of our dog’s ashes are here because this was her favorite place to come. Her name was Sadie. She would just lay right there, and the waves would just wash over her.
It’s definitely gotten more popular, so there’s way more people than when we first came … the people are just friendly. There’s no uppity pinky-in-the-air people here.
Cathe Steele, former music manager and employee: The first time I visited Pirates Cove was in 1992. There would be people from all over the world … there were so many people who — you weren’t really sure if the name they gave you was their real name. There was Bankrobber Tony, who was actually a real bankrobber, hiding out at Pirates Cove. There were about three different Bills: Ponytailed Bill, Wild Bill, Shorttailed Bill.
Karl Mueller: The marina probably drew in the most interesting characters. We had Willie Lipe, who quit his job as a tugboat captain to make a living playing harmonica (laughs). I mean, there’s been so many.
Cathe Steele: I became their music manager in 2004, and I would organize music and songwriter events. After about a year, they gave me a bar job.
We had a special night in 2006 where it really kind of all broke lose. It was my 50th birthday in the middle of January. It was probably 20- or 30-knot winds outside and 24 degrees. And the wind was ripping and freezing cold. Well, then you could smoke in the bar, and the room would fill up with smoke. So 250 people showed up for this, and we fit 250 people in that bar. People were dancing on the bar, dancing on the tables. And every once in a while when the room would get too full of smoke, somebody would yell that they were going to open the door. And we’d open the windward side of the bar doors and the leeward side of the bar doors. And the wind would whip through and whip all the smoke out. Then we’d slam the doors and just go on. There was a guy that night who had a fake leg, so he would walk around in the middle of the room … and he would take tips in his wooden leg. It was incredible.
At one point during the night, there were three ladies up on the bar where Lucia was. Lucia was working that night, sitting there smoking a cigarette, listening to the music. There was an elderly lady who was dancing on the bar … and Lucia saw her tipping backward. I’m standing there thinking, “This lady’s going to crack her skull.” Lucia puts her cigarette down, sets her drink down, just reaches up there and shoves her back up on the bar, and she just kept on dancing.
I worked as a bartender there from 2004 to 2011 … You would get people from all walks of life and all over the world. The conversations that you would hear ran the gamut from stories to tall-tales to half-lies and half-truths. But I had more fun, I will tell you, in my years of working as a bartender at Pirates Cove than I have had in my whole life … It was a joy to be able to experience this wide variety of human nature that came from everywhere or came just passing through.
Karl Mueller: You’ll have the garbage man right next to the heart surgeon, and they’re talking about the same stuff. It just goes to show that people are really the same.
Cathe Steele: There was a rhythm to being a bartender at Pirates Cove that was almost like a community. And there were people who got it, folks who would get the Cove, and people who did not get the Cove. You would tell people, “You’re going to have to wait for a while, because it takes a while to cook these burgers” … there were those who would complain and not come back, and there were those who realized what it was and became regulars.
Lucia Wills: I could not pick my favorite regular customers, that’s almost impossible to say. I love all the people who love the fact that Pirates Cove has changed but they’re not mad about it. Those are the people I like. And the people that, when they come to the Cove, they’re not just coming for a bushwacker and a burger. They’re coming because this is something they’ve always done — their parents did it, and their grandparents did it. We have a lot of customers who — I remember bringing food out to their parents when I was a kid!
Karl Mueller: It’s always changing. It’s almost like a living thing.
Eileen Mueller: You just can’t be very stuck on yourself if you come here. You have to just accept the whole world as it is.
Some interview excerpts were edited for clarity and brevity.