The Mayor of Hell has seen worse than the COVID-19 crisis.
John Colone was mistakenly pronounced dead and zipped into a body bag after taking fire in Vietnam. But he returned to his native Hell, Michigan, to become a successful businessman and booster for one of the state’s most cherished getaway spots for sports car joyriding.
His businesses — Hellhole Bar, Screams Ice Cream, Hell Mini-Golf, Hell Wedding Chapel and Hell Canoe & Kayak Rental — have been shut down for weeks months now, and he knows Michiganians are getting antsy. But he can wait a little while longer.
“We’re getting a lot of calls,” said the self-proclaimed mayor in this unincorporated town as the songbirds — and revving engines — of spring lit up Hell’s hills and twisty roads 45 minutes west of Detroit in Livingston County. “We’re cleaning and anxious to get back open, but we’re following the governor’s orders.”
As springtime warms Hell’s roads, Colone thrills at the sight of auto enthusiasts — “People love the roads and the curves and the corners” — bringing their wheels to Hell’s legendary country roads to stretch their legs.
“There were a couple of Porsches out here earlier today when I came out,” he said. “Some guys came out here last week with a radar and clocked a Corvette at 123 mph. Why come to Hell? People need to have something to do in this crisis.”
Hell, population 72, is a uniquely Michigan town. At its heart is a man who has seen the world but whose heart belongs here.
Colone was born 74 years ago with oil in his blood.
“I’ve always been a car guy. My first real car … was a ’59 Plymouth. Mine was called Abaddon — everyone had a name for their car back then. In the Old Testament, Abaddon was the angel from Hell. That stuff always came with me — I’ve always had love for this little town.”
He’s owned a variety of hot rods over the years including a ground-shaking Dodge Viper and currently tools around town in a ’36 Dodge Coupe with the license plate “4HellMI.”
Colone returned to Hell after his own crisis in Vietnam in 1968.
He was a squad leader for the 101st Airborne. “My goal is to live until I’m 101,” said Colone.
His battalion was on patrol in Kim Lien, the birthplace of revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, when a firefight broke out.
“I was shot three times on Feb. 19,” remembers Colone, who was shot in the leg, arm and neck and zipped into a body bag, toe tag and all. “We were crossing over a river when all of a sudden everything broke loose. We lost 17 guys in a battalion of 23.”
A guy named Dan Marshall helped him. “Then he got shot, and I remember him saying he wasn’t going to make it. He told me to tell his mom he loved her.”
He found her in Hawaii 30 years later and delivered the message.
After returning to the United States to heal, he worked for auto dealers and learned the craft of selling cars. He returned to Livingston Country in 1977 to buy Pinckney Chrysler-Dodge.
Over 22 years, he built a successful dealership known for selling Vipers and shutting down the streets of Hell every year with the “Hell of a Cruise,” a fundraiser for the Livingston County United Way that brought out 1,700 cars at its peak.
“There were 63 places to have burnouts,” he said of the cruise that started in Pinckney, ran through Gregory and Unadilla, and ended up on Patterson Lake Road through Hell. “It took us probably three hours to get through Hell with everyone doing burnouts.”
After selling the dealership in 1999, Colone got bored and set about growing his group of Hell businesses.
He’s not the first character to put Hell on the map. The town was settled in 1838 by George Reese, his wife, and five children. Reese built a mill and a general store on the banks of Hell Creek. He ground the local farmers’ abundance of grain into flour and ran a whiskey still.
“So that first seven to 10 bushels of grain became moonshine,” recounts Colone. “And a lot of times horses would come home without riders — and wagons without drivers — and somebody would ask the wife: ‘Where’s your husband?’ The reply was always: ‘He’s gone to Hell.’”
According to local legend, when the state came by in 1841 and asked George what he was going to name his town, he said, “Call it Hell for all I care. Everyone else does.“
The town has officially been Hell since 1841. And today, it’s a destination for kayakers and canoeists who want to paddle from Bruin Lake to Hell Creek. Or flog a sports car over the twisties of Patterson Lake Road.
Enter Screams Ice Cream. When it reopens, Colone will sell you a coffee mug emblazoned with the acronym HUGS — short for the Hell, Unadilla, Gregory and Stockbridge roads where motorheads like to play.
“Anytime you go into a store or restaurant, you’ll get a free mug of coffee and a hug,” said Colone as a Lotus Esprit raced by.
Although for now, social distancing is putting brakes on the hugs.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
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