He probably wasn't a whole lot bigger than most men of his time and place, in height or in girth, rolling into the third decade of the nineteenth century in Sullivan County New York. George Reeves, if not imposing, was certainly a man who required a bit more elbow room than most. Maybe his expectations from life, and from himself, were just a little larger than those of the folks who surrounded him. For even then, in the mid-1830s, he found the insistent swell of population to be an infringement of what he felt to be his sanctuary from civilization, there in the Catskill Mountains. So, after convincing his brothers James and John that the territory of Michigan might offer them some adventure and an opportunity to stake a claim in a land that had just been newly wrestled from the control of the Potawatomi, they gathered a few belongings and were swept into the tide of migration that followed the Erie Canal west in 1837.
At that time, Professor William Kirkland, formerly of Utica, New York, had just completed the platting of the Village of Pinckney, near the chain of lakes formed by the Huron River. Glaciers had sliced through this places eons ago, digging valleys and bunching up hills, giving the country a quirky and eccentric shape. Crisp rivers flowed thhrough the low places, and the tops of the hills were lush in pine, oak, maple, poplar, and sassafras. Finding the area to his liking, George Reeves partnered with a man named Minot, and opened a store in one of the buildings owned by Kirkland. There he stayed for the next four years.
In 1841, opportunity knocked on the Reeves door as he bought the interest of two men, Solomon and Bignall, in the large sawmill they operated a few miles to the west of Pinckney at what is now Hell Creek. Adding to the value of the small empire was the acquisition of one thousand acres of adjacent land, on which he built a flour mill to grind the wheat from his farm and from the other farmers of the county. The mill was powered by a dam, which Reeves had erected on the creek. An early entrepreneur, he also opened a general store to serve the growing community. Near the store were seven homes, occupied by folks who were in the employ of Reeves, and a district school that had a capacity of seventy students.
The yield from this rich river-fed soil was high, and the Reeves mill was soon producing over one hundred barrels of flour a day ... more than enough to create increasing prosperity for the local residents. Reeves, who had had a small whiskey still hidden on his property, decided to build a distillery next to the mill, thereby solving the problem of surplus wheat, and also slaking the thirsts of the local farmers, who bought Reeves' whiskey in abundance. The life of a pioneer was not an easy one, and the whiskey was a welcome addition at barn raisings, harvests, and other social gatherings.
It became a tradition to bring the first bushel of wheat threshed in any given year to the distillery to be converted into whiskey. And convert Reeves did. By this time Reeves had built a tavern in the town, and so had a convenient outlet for his liquor. He employed two teams of sales and delivery men, who traveled extensively in the early 1860s selling and delivering whiskey in barrel lots to roadhouses, stores, and anyone else who had acquired a taste for the local product.
After the Civil War, the government raised the tax on whiskey ... raised it so high that Reeves could no longer distill and sell it at a profit. But he was never one to stand on formalities, nor to deny the public what he must have felt was their inalienable right to imbibe their drink of choice. The distillery continued to turn out the amber liquid, and sold it locally for as little as ten cents a gallon. Reeves expanded his role as a mover and shaker in the community, building a ballroom above the tavern and a sulky racetrack around the millpond. Things must have been festive, to say the least, when the whiskey flowed, the horses ran, the people danced, and the lush green trees of southern Livingston County swayed in the warm summer breezes.
The federal government increased its reach in the post-war years, extending even to out-of-the-way locales such as this. Tax collectors traveled throughout the new state, and when local folks learned that collectors were heading toward Hell, messengers were dispatched immediately to warn of their approach. The townspeople of Hell knew what to do: the whiskey was poured into sixty-three gallon hogshead barrels, hauled to the pond, and sunk to the bottom, with long ropes attached. The ends of the ropes were left on the bottom of the pond, hidden several feet deep where the feds were sure not to snoop.
You can picture George Reeves, arms folded across his chest as he received the revenuers, perhaps explaining that yes, he had once produced whiskey in the distillery, but no, he didn't any longer, due to the new taxes which were squeezing the lifeblood out of the American citizen. Local folks probably shared an exasperating silence with the feds when asked about whiskey production. Finally, the agents would realize that they weren't about to collect any funds from this little burg, and would make their departure, stealthily tracked by silent citizens until the agents were far enough away that Reeves and the townsfolk were convinced they were again in the clear. Swimmers would then retrieve the ropes, everyone would grab a bit of line and pull like, well, like hell, and once again the little town would be at peace.
But even a scene as idyllic as this must eventually come to an end. Perhaps the local taste for whiskey ran out as the years went by; perhaps temperance found its way into the community; perhaps the exertion of pulling two-hundred-pound barrels of whiskey from the bottom of the lake ceased to be offset by the pleasure of their contents' consumption. Whatever the reason, the Reeves distillery closed its doors, and shortly thereafter the flour mill burned down. Somehow, the twinkle-in-the-eye spirit of this little town grew a little fogged. Likely it was partly due to the advancing age of the town's most industrious citizen, who succumbed to the wear and tear of the nineteenth-century life in 1877 and passed on to whatever spirit world was ready to receive him.
Reeves' wife and seven daughters lived there for many years after his death, and the town remained a small but viable community of farmers and tradespeople. It wasn't until 1924 that the descendants of George Reeves sold the thousand-acre farm to a group of investors from Detroit. The big-city folk rasied the level of the dam to form a lake where the millpond had been, and named it Hi-Land Lake. The area slowly became a summer resort destination, with soft shady beaches around the lake and plentiful bluegill in the water.
In the decades that followed, not much changed in the town of Hell. The stock market crashed, and Hell survived. Henry Ford scouted the location as one that would serve in his plan for a number of water-driven small manufacturing plants, but the plan collapsed under administrative weight before it could come to fruition. The Second World War was fought and won, paid with the lives and valor of many young men from Livingston County. Hell remained essentially unscathed by time. The Korean conflict began and ended, and the war in Viet Nam took its toll on the community as it had on every community in the nation. Hell survived. The turmoil of the '70s, the selfish me-decade of the '80s, the technology-rich '90s ... all have flowed through Hell Creek and have left little trace of their passing.
Tucked away as it is amidst the hills, creeks, and rivers, Hell maintains a strange combination of notoriety and attraction. People come to visit, to see Hell, to say they've been to Hell and back, and to laugh as the irony of the phrase rings into the air. People from everywhere, all manner of people, travel the scenic roads into Hell, to marvel at the beauty of the land, to hike the trails, to swim and fish the waters, to open up the throttle just a little on the curves and to smile. It's the kind of smile George Reeves might have smiled, standing on the porch of the tavern, arms folded across his chest, as the horses tore around the pond, the people danced and laughed, his daughters grew beautiful, and the righteous homemade whiskey flowed, bringing a blush to the cheeks and a feeling that here, in Hell, life was just about as good as a man could expect life to be.
There are a couple of different theories about how this little place came to own such a notorious name. The truth is, there was probably no one standing around taking notes during the early part of the 1830s; they were more likely busy getting the crops out of the fields, the animals out of the garden, and the dinner on the table. So you're invited to read both theories and choose one that suits you best.
Anyway, Theory One goes like this: A pair of German travelers slid out of a curtained stagecoach one sunny summer afternoon, and one said to the other, "So schoene hell." 'Hell,' in the German language, means bright and beautiful. Those who overheard the visitors' comments had a bit of a laugh and shared the story with the other locals.
Sometime later, George Reeves, who, more than anyone else, was responsible for the origin of Hell, was asked just what he thought the town should be named. George reportedly replied, "I don't care, you can name it Hell if you want to." As the story goes, the name stuck and stuck fast. After some attempts to soften the effect of the name by suggesting they change it to Reevesville or Reeve's Mills, he gave up on the whole thing and simply lived with it.
Theory Two. The area in which Hell exists is pretty low and swampy. And because it was a part of the Dexter Trail, which traced along the higher ground between Lansing and Dexter, Michigan, a formerly busy farm market and early railhead, traveling through the Hell area would have been wetter, darker, more convoluted, and certainly denser with mosquitoes than other legs of the journey. Further, river traders of old would have had to portage between the Huron and the Grand River systems somewhere around the present location of Hell. You can picture them pulling their canoes, heavy with provisions and beaver pelts, through the underbrush, muttering and swatting bugs as they fought to get to the banks of the next river.
Maybe we're lucky it's called Hell and not something worse; the river traders likely had more colorful words to say about that part of their trip. Feel free to select whichever theory brings you comfort or intellectual satisfaction. And if the impulse strikes, you're entirely welcome to make up a better explanation and send it to us. History is re-written every day, and there's no reason we should leave that sort of thing to the academics, politicians, and media mucketymucks.