South Carolina man’s motorcycle menagerie dates back to ’40s

New Ellenton native Kelly B.K. Keenan, with a variety of skills at his disposal, has a collection of seven decades of Harley-Davidson motorcycles and related memorabilia, Nov. 2, 2021, in New Ellenton, S.C. The “personal Harley stuff,” as he calls it, is housed in a former bank building, complete with a vault in the back. The motorcycle menagerie includes a fleet of motorcycles, armloads of trophies and hundreds of magazines, photos, trophies, clothing items and other accessories dating back at least to the 1940s. (Bill Bengtson/The Aiken Standard via AP)

AP

Kelly “B.K.” Keenan speaks the language of ape hangers, softails, knuckleheads and choppers, and can call on several decades of experience when he launches into a road trip or begins a conversation on the topic of Harley-Davidson and the miles between New Ellenton and such destinations as Daytona Beach, Florida, and Sturgis, South Dakota.

The “personal Harley stuff,” as he calls it, is housed in a former bank building, complete with a vault in the back, all a few yards from New Ellenton’s only traffic light, at George Avenue and North Main Street.

The motorcycle menagerie includes a fleet of motorcycles, armloads of trophies and hundreds of magazines, photos, trophies, clothing items and other accessories dating back at least to the 1940s.

The oldest “bike” is from 1940, and the newest is from 2006. Creations, whether rescued from obscurity in a barn or bought from a traditional dealer, bear such names as Betsy, Half-Breed (“a 1947-1950″), Hog-Iron, Big Bird and Spare Parts. Some are heavily customized and others have their original anatomy. Some have wound up in a media spotlight.

Red, white and blue, with accompanying stars and stripes in both U.S. and Confederate styles, are easy to spot in Keenan’s collection and humor is part of the package. One specimen has a silver hog, in hood-ornament style, placed on the front fender. Another has a painted message across the back: “White trash … with cash.”

“I don’t really call it a museum,” the 62-year-old businessman said. “I call it a look-see room, and … you’d be surprised at the few people who’s ever even been in it and looked, just because it ain’t hardly ever open, but I’m always around, and I don’t mind showing it to anybody, because I like people to see what we’ve got here.”

“I was born and raised here,” he recalled, noting that he still lives in the house where he was brought up, with two brothers and two sisters among his closest company. “I do motorcycles, and I do old cars.”

Keenan has logged plenty of leisurely mileage over the decades, crossing the country to attend biker rallies, swap meets and other events, and one of his first major trips had nothing to do with motorcycles, as he ran into trouble as a young man and, instead of going to high school, headed for Dodge City, Kansas, to work.

“I had a friend that had an aunt there that owned a restaurant … Her husband was a farmer … so three days a week, one of us would wash dishes and the other one would be loading hay, and it flipped around. The other two days, you swapped jobs,” he recalled. “Somebody come in the restaurant when I was there, and said, ‘We’re looking for some roughnecks.’”

Keenan, at that point in the late 1970s, wasn’t familiar with the term, which traditionally refers to a worker in a oil-drilling rig.

“He said, ‘It pays $7.20 an hour, and we work seven days a week, 12-hour shifts.’ I said, ‘I’m a roughneck,’ so me and my buddy went to work in the oil fields … and I worked in it about three years, and we went all across Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.”

Keenan has revisited oil and gas country over the decades, he recalled. “Quite a few of my friends, I took back out there, over the years, and some of them stayed forever … but I come back, and I went to work in construction with my brothers.”

He and his wife, Jackie, can now have a little more leisure time together, as she retired from her Savannah River Site job at the end of October. “She worked at the plant 31 years, and we’ve been married 36 years,” Keenan recalled, noting that their family tree now includes one daughter, three grandsons and one great-grandson.

As a native of New Ellenton, he still has a reasonably good grip on who’s who. “Anybody who was actually from New Ellenton, I pretty much know them, or know of them. Up until the late ’80s, everybody was pretty much from New Ellenton, and then everybody started moving in, moving out.”

His favorite motorcycle maker dates back to 1903 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where four young men — one Harley and three Davidsons — “lit a cultural wildfire that would grow and spread across geographies and generations,” as described on the Harley-Davidson website.

It adds, “Their innovation and imagination for what was possible on two wheels sparked a transportation revolution and lifestyle that would make Harley-Davidson the most desirable motorcycle brand in the world.”