Life as a chimney sweep definitely not for everyone

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After nearly 40 years in the business, Randy Cooke, aka Cookie the Sweep, knows the score: you never know what you’ll find when you check a chimney. There are, of course, the usual finds: soot, creosote, bones, birds’ nests, perhaps the odd four-legged squatter, dead or alive. But there are also plenty of unusual finds the scans come across.

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For example, take the unexploded World War II mortar that a sweep found stuck in a flue in Leicester, England, a few years ago. Or the 1912 letter to Santa Claus that was discovered some 90 years later barely burned above a fender in Dublin, Ireland. A sweep in Australia has cleaned up 36 dead birds in a chimney, no doubt the result of a bizarre avian cult suicide pact. Closer to home, a few years ago a Kingston sweep uncovered 50 years of bird droppings in a disused smokestack on the Queen’s University campus. Shit-snooping researchers armed with tweezers dug through the droppings and found a sharp decrease in beetles in the diet of the insectivorous swifts that had taken up residence in the chimney. The researchers inferred that the decrease was due to the use of the now-banned chemical DDT, to which the beetles were particularly sensitive, and which the reviewers concluded also led to the rapid decline of the population that frequented the chimney.

Cooke, 54, recalls the time he shone a flashlight at a chimney flue and spotted a small box wrapped in two shiny bands and sitting, like Santa’s letter, above the register in a fire-protected area that sweepers call the “smoke shelf”. “Inside the intact felt-covered box was a diamond ring.

“The owner hid it from his girlfriend in the one place he knew she wouldn’t find it,” Randy says. “He just forgot to tell me in advance.”

Cooke dates back to a day in the early 1990s when he pulled a zippered bank bag from a smoke rack inside a fireplace in a tony neighborhood of Kingston. The bag contained several thousand dollars in old Canadian currency emblazoned for the first time with the image of the new monarch, Queen Elizabeth. The owner, noting that the money was not his, thought the stash of bills had been piled there by the previous owner who had since died. The man kindly shared the long-lost loot with Cookie, who immediately used his better half to buy a hot-rod engine for his 1970 Dart.

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Another local chimney sweep, Shane White, owner of the Kingston and area one-man chimney sweep, recounts the time he was cleaning his mother’s chimney and a flying squirrel scampered off the top and flew to safety via an air route. “People think there are no flying squirrels here,” recalled eyewitness White, “but I saw a few.”

The tools of the trade sweeper mainly consist of brushes of different sizes, several rods of different lengths and a powerful vacuum cleaner. A modern sweep often uses up to 10 fiberglass rods that thread together, if necessary, and an assortment of brushes ranging in size from four inches (for pellet stoves) to the large 12 x 16 brush. inches (for large chimneys). .) Oh yeah, and the ability to climb like a ring-tailed lemur is a definite plus for any sweeper. “I love climbing and being outdoors,” says Alex Dowell, 33, who’s been climbing for Cookie the Sweep for 16 years after two tedious years working indoors at Walmart.

Assessing the condition and stability of the chimney is essential before any cleaning. However, even after this initial inspection, accidents can and do happen, as White attests.

“One time I was standing on top of a chimney, which was the only way to get there,” White, 57, recalled. “The chimney broke, I landed on my back and luckily I didn’t slip (from the roof). It was a superior alarm clock.

Remember, this incident pales in comparison to the horrific risks and methods used in the late 18th and 19th centuries in not-so-joyful England – not so jolly if you were among the little children commonly used as human sweeps. The “Master Sweeps” took in homeless young boys or bought young children from poor families and forced them to work from dawn to dusk, day after day. The children were given the seemingly respectable title of “Chimney Sweep’s Apprentice.” In reality, these child laborers were indentured slaves made to climb chimneys with brushes and scraping tools. On their ascent to the top, the little workers knocked off the deposits of creosote, soot and tar and were often ordered to come back down and then bag the pile of soot accumulated at the bottom, which the master sold then to farmers as fertilizer. And woe to the thin-bodied young sweeper who didn’t climb fast enough: the cruelest masters sometimes held a lighted torch under the stragglers, hence the origin of the expression “light a fire under you”.

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Fortunately, the use of children’s sweepers in the UK was banned in 1864. Part of the reason for this is that decades earlier a type of mechanical brush was invented and is still in use today.

Cooke has fun with – but certainly never recommends – some of the “creative” methods people use to clean their own chimneys. There was the farmer who cut off the top half of his Christmas tree, tied a rope to one end, and pulled it through the flue. Or the man who did the same thing, except with a big burlap sack filled to about the size of the flue. Then there was the guy who thought he would get rid of a large bird’s nest stuck near the top of his chimney by poking and pounding it repeatedly in the hope the nest would eventually break and fall to the bottom. Instead, the nest got stuck halfway, and the duct had to be removed and a new one installed. “That’s how you turn a $200 job into an $1,800 job,” Cooke says as a warning to do-it-yourselfers.

Obviously the life of a chimney sweep isn’t for everyone, but don’t tell that to Cooke, White, young Dowell or 78-year-old Gord Jackson, the retired grandfather of local chimney sweeps whose father and grandfather preceded him in the profession.

“I loved it,” Jackson admits. “I loved being up there and looking down on the city.”

Patrick Kennedy is a retired Whig-Standard reporter. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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