A version of this story aired in 2015.
For hundreds of years, chimney sweeps have provided a necessary and important service to society. In 1981 Jeff Schmittinger began working in the field and today he operates Wisconsin Chimney Technicians in Waukesha.
Before becoming a chimney sweep — yes, that term is still acceptable today — Schmittinger worked as a volunteer firefighter in North Prairie, a village in Waukesha County. He was also working for Kohl’s Food Stores at the time, but when the company started closing stores in the late ’70s, Schmittinger says he “saw the writing on the wall” and thought about it. new careers.
One day, while reading “Firehouse Magazine”, Schmittinger discovered that there was a need for chimney sweeps. Due to the oil embargo, people had gone back to using wood to heat or partially heat their homes, and many chimneys suddenly needed cleaning and repair.
The profession seemed to be a good fit, so Schmittinger started a chimney sweeping and repair business.
About a decade later, in 1993, Schmittinger decided to cold call the White House and offer his chimney sweeping services.
“I never thought they would agree to accept me, but lo and behold, they did,” Schmittinger says.
Shortly after making the call, Schmittinger made his first trip to the White House with a team of chimney sweeps—some of whom already worked for Schmittinger—and others he recruited from around the country.
Since then, Schmittinger and a rotating band of chimney sweeps have visited the White House every few years. There are 35 homes on site and it takes them about three days to do the job.
“If someone had told me when I started in this business that one day I would be standing on the roof of the White House, I would have thought they were crazy,” Schmittinger says.
During his visits to the President’s mansion, Schmittinger saw President Clinton from afar and had multiple conversations with President George W. Bush. Once President Bush spent 45 minutes talking with the chimney sweeps because many of them were veterans.
“Whether you like his politics or not, he’s a nice human being,” Schmittinger says.
During the Obama administration, Schmittinger’s services were not needed as often.
“The Obamas don’t burn much; they are not (chimney) burners,” he says. “You’d think, coming from Chicago, they would.”
Schmittinger planned to return to the White House to prepare fireplaces and fireplaces for the Trump family. In the meantime, he sent a box of Userger’s holiday sausages to White House staff, as he had done every December.
“Everyone has always bent over backwards to be nice to us,” Schmittinger says. “You might think we’re chimney sweeps, they’d think they’re above us, but we never got that impression.”
Schmittinger and his family have been invited to many White House events, including private tours, an Easter egg roll and to view Christmas decorations.
“Some rewards for my work aren’t in the bank,” he says. “Some things are worth more than that.”
Locally, Schmittinger’s company cleans and repairs about 20 fireplaces or wood-burning stoves a week. Although the profession began in the 16th century, some of the work has remained the same.
“It’s a very old craft,” says Schmittinger. “And today, part of it is done in the old fashioned way and part of it has moved on to the present day.”
In modern chimney sweeping, the process includes the use of a vacuum cleaner, but brooms – in a variety of different sizes – are still used as well. Today, chimney sweeps also use a video scanning system to inspect the inside of the chimney for accumulated debris and cracks. They also wear respirators and don’t necessarily dress all in black as they traditionally did.
However, Schmittinger still walks around with a top hat in his car – which was part of the chimney sweep’s attire many years ago – and he sometimes wears it to work just for fun. Historically, chimney sweeps wore top hats because in some countries they were lower class and they believed that if they dressed up it would improve their status.
On the other hand, in some countries like Germany, seeing a chimney sweep was believed to bring good luck.
“In Germany, the chimney sweep is right under God,” says Schmittinger.
Schmittinger says the holiday season is his favorite time of year to be a chimney sweep because of his association with Santa Claus. Sometimes at work the kids refer to the Jolly Guy and, after checking with their parents, Schmittinger gives them a piece of red cloth.
“I’ll say something like, ‘Oh, what do we have here? Looks like Santa ripped his coat coming down your chimney,'” Schmittinger says. “It usually spreads a lot of joy.”
Chimney sweeper Jeff Schmittinger and Santa have some things in common.