These days, few young people choose a career of climbing on roofs and removing soot from bricks. But despite other options, that’s exactly what Vilnis Daņiļevičs happily does from Monday to Friday.
As a young man, Vilnis followed his heart and studied to become a music teacher. Indeed, for 20 years, he has been playing the organ every Sunday in the Lutheran church of Turaida. But then he became an apprentice to his chimney sweep father and has no regrets following in his father’s footsteps.
“You can travel, meet people and see something new, rather than sitting in an office shuffling papers,” he says. “It’s interesting and creative work.”
In previous centuries, fires were a terrible hazard in densely built cities. Thus, men who had the power to prevent them were held in high esteem.
In 1738, the Brotherhood of Chimney Sweeps was founded in Riga, as part of the corporate system that had organized economic life since medieval times. The work has continued under all subsequent regimes and surprisingly much has not changed for three centuries.
After Latvia regained its independence in 1991, the Brotherhood was reestablished. Today, it is again running a traditional apprenticeship system in which young people learn the trade from experienced masters rather than in a classroom.
At the end of the Soviet period, Vilnis’ father was a chimney sweep attached to the Sigulda fire brigade. He sometimes asked his son to help him and gradually taught him the tricks of the trade. As age caught up with Daņiļevičš senior, Vilnis gradually resumed work on the roof and eventually inherited the business.
Along the way, he also gained training in masonry from an old Latvian potter, who taught him how to build tiled fireplaces and stoves from scratch, even collecting the right clay to make bricks.
Vilnis says he’s not afraid of heights, but there have been some tricky situations. Once, a client had just installed a new ladder to access the chimney in his house. Assured by the owner that all was well, Vilnis began to climb, when the hooks at the top of the ladder suddenly came loose, sending him sliding onto the tiles. Luckily it was only a one story building and landing on a car cushioned the fall halfway through, but it taught us the lesson of never taking anything for granted.
Being careful also saves other people’s lives. If soot and other debris start a fire inside a chimney, the draft can raise the temperature to 900 degrees Celsius, destroying the home in minutes. Thus, people realize that it is cheaper to have the chimney sweep come regularly.
You won’t see much smoke in big cities these days, as most buildings now use other forms of heating. But Latvian chimney sweeps keep pace with technology, inspecting and maintaining gas and wood pellet boilers and ventilation systems.
The community spirit of the Confrérie is of a timeless charm. Its approximately 80 members (including a woman, who also learned the trade from her father), enjoy annual rafting trips on the Gauja River with their families and other get-togethers.
“They are really like brothers,” says Skaidrīte, the wife from Vilnis. “They make sure their friends don’t drink too much, that they are good family men and that they have other interests in life than making money.”
The best form of publicity is word of mouth, and many Vilnis beat households, centered around his hometown of Cēsis and Sigulda, have remained with the Daņiļevičs clan from generation to generation. If they’re not at home, people leave the door open and the money on the table,
“They know me, and I know them, and I always do my best, so there are no problems,” he said.
Vilnis does not hide the fact that it is a dirty job. If the temperature outside is +30, then it can reach 40-50 degrees in an attic. To cool off, one summer evening he went swimming in a lake, and after undressing, his blackened face and hands caused a nearby fisherman to ask if he had been in an accident.
Perhaps to compensate, chimney sweeps pay great attention to their appearance after hours. They have a dressy uniform with traditional tools, a top hat and shiny brass buttons, which foreigners in Latvia love to come and touch.
“Buttons symbolize good luck,” says Vilnis. “If you make a wish, it’s a good idea to tie it to someone who works at dangerous heights but always comes out unharmed!”
It’s not just work and no play either. Every September, Vilnis and Skaidrīte travel to the World Congress of Chimney Sweeps in Italy, meeting colleagues from all over the world. And the Brotherhood’s annual end-of-year balls in the small guild in old Riga are quite the production. Vilnis usually sings to entertain revelers, while other chimney sweeps play clarinet, saxophone and trombone.
There has been talk of forming an orchestra or a choir of chimney sweeps, but gathering from all over the country for rehearsals is a problem. Yet, according to Vilnis, nothing prevents them from making music just for fun.
“You know how Latvians are – if someone starts singing, then everyone joins us!” he’s laughing. “Especially if you’ve had a drink or two!”
In Riga’s historic working class district, Grīziņkalns, a monument titled “The Chimney Sweep and the Bricklayer” celebrates the men who have kept the city warm over generations. It may have been created with Vilnis in mind.
This article originally appeared on the Latvian Institute website and is reproduced here with permission.