ROCKVILLE, CT – Tour what was once the Hockanum Mill in Rockville with Ken Kaplan, as RIDE-CT did recently, and his attention to detail on his $10 million dream project is constantly evident. It was evident during the factory tour when he showed off the original wood floors, complete with wear-mark footprints where workers once stood at textile machines as many as 160 years ago, and also when he noted the exposed brick walls inside the factory.
“I want to leave the walls’ original patina. To paint over brick like that would lose so much character,” said Kaplan. Paint has been an issue, though, and removing it has been a huge chore. A total of 15 50-gallon drums have been filled with lead paint chips. “The lead paint also contained arsenic and cadmium,” he said, reporting that nearly $1 million has spent on site clean-up so far.
Kaplan’s single-mindedness was also evident when he stopped along the way to talk with employees – inquiring of a worker rehabbing a piece of equipment in the factory’s basement whether he had proper face protection, wondering to another whether some four-pane windows about to be reinstalled on the top floor beneath the rafters needed primer or ordering another that stones extracted from a nearby bank be hauled away.
The goal behind his passion is to get the New England Motorcycle Museum opened by next Labor Day. “You’ve got to have stick-to-itiveness,” he said. “It’s almost like obsession takes over me until it’s done.”
When completed, Kaplan wants the New England Motorcycle Museum to eclipse the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Birmingham, AL, which is regarded the best in the country. It’s a repository of 1,200 motorcycles dating back to 1902, with approximately 600 on display at any given time.
“They have a 600-bike display. My goal is to have 601,” Kaplan declared. “I want to make this a destination where people come for the day.” Besides motorcycles, Kaplan plans to have a restaurant with branded craft beers, a banquet hall, mini-bike track and petting zoo. Given his constantly whirring mind, there’s little doubt that Kaplan will come up with a few more attractions between now and September.
RIDE-CT’s purpose in journeying to Rockville earlier this month was to merely get an initial glimpse, but Kaplan enthusiastically provided a guided walk-through, beginning with Kaplan Cycles, a separate company he owns that fixes and restores motorcycles. It’s housed in a separate building at the rear of the factory. Upstairs there’s a showroom while downstairs there’s a shop.
As we headed around front to the factory, Kaplan noted what’s no longer evident – a water wheel that was used to power the factory before the Hockanum River was diverted across the street and all the plant growth and graffiti that were an impediment and eyesore before the clean-up began. “This was probably ground zero – the worst spot in Rockville. There were taggings everywhere,” Kaplan said.
What exists now – 2½ years after planning began and 18 months after physical work began – is a worksite that is rapidly becoming fresh and appealing. The original Hockanum Mill was built in 1814, destroyed by fire in 1854 and subsequently rebuilt. During the late 1800s and up until the mid-20th Century, it produced high-quality worsted cloth. The inaugural suit worn by President William McKinley in 1897 was produced at the Hockanum Mill. The mill closed in 1951.
Kaplan said that $2.5 million has been expended so far on what will be a 40,000-square-foot museum. Kaplan has contributed $500,000 and a $2 million low-interest Connecticut Brownfield loan had made up the difference. Some 287 windows cost $1,000 each “because they’re historic recreations,” he said. The fire suppression system uses brass sprinkler heads. “I figure if I’m going to do it, do it right.”
The acquisition of motorcycles for the museum has already begun. He has roughly 150 total. Many are housed in a rear wing of the factory, with the bulk being off-road machines and mini-bikes. “We’ll have something for everybody,” Kaplan said, suggesting that the emphasis won’t be on rare bikes or ones dating back the early days of motorcycling, rather the focus will be on Japanese and British bikes made in the 1960s and 1970s.
Kaplan believes riders will want to see bikes that will get them to recall “Oh, I had one of those” as opposed to, say, early Indians. “Most people don’t relate to an early Indian. It’s unobtainable for most people,” he said.
Nonetheless, Kaplan promised, “There’s going to be a wide array (of motorcycles).” There will be a mixture of fully restored bikes and those in original condition purchased by the museum as well as loaner bikes from collectors.
The 49-year-old Kaplan owns a total of six companies, including Kaplan Computers and Rockville Construction. He envisions that he’ll employ a total of 250 people once the museum is open, with the New England Motorcycle Museum having the highest profile. His hope is that it will draw 10,000 visitors a month. If successful, the museum will certainly give Rockville another claim to fame besides singer Gene Pitney.