BETHEL — The Sumner family of Bethel has been in the chimney sweeping business for more than 80 years, spanning three generations.
Although demand for the service today isn’t what it was at the turn of the 20th century, Albert “Al” Sumner Jr. and his sons, Scott and Shannon, say one of the main reasons they continue to do so is the opportunity to visit with people they don’t see regularly.
The service was started by Al’s father, Albert Sumner Sr.
Al, 80, and his sister, Eleanor Brooks, say their father had been doing it for as long as they can remember.
Al started cleaning around the age of 12 and, as is always the case, the Sumners cleaned chimneys at nights and on weekends because everyone else had other jobs.
A carpenter by day, Al remembers building 12 or 15 chimneys in western Paris in a single weekend day.
Today, they average about 30 repeat customers per season.
They used the traditional brushes to clean, but also used a heavy metal device they called a rigging, used to initially knock large chunks of creosote from the chimney walls. In those early years, a cleanse typically cost $2, climbing to around $10 a few decades later, Al said.
Scott and Shannon started helping out when they were around 9 years old, initially just to learn the skill.
“You have to stand at the top of the chimney,” Al said. “They started doing this around 12 or 13.”
While most of the cleaning takes place on nights and weekends in the fall, the Sumners found themselves called in unannounced.
Al recalls one instance where a landlord called him around 9 p.m. about a cleanup. Al told the person he would put it on his cleaning list.
“‘I want you to come now!'” Al recalled the man saying.
It turned out that he had started a fire in his stove for the first time one fall and the chimney was clogged.
So Al drove off, turning the car’s headlights on the house to light enough of the way to reach the fireplace.
Another regular customer called them five times one winter, after filling a wood stove with wood and then letting it simmer all day – a quick way to build up creosote.
Then there was the trip to Andover when a man called, only to learn that his wife didn’t think the chimney needed cleaning. A few days later, the smoke flows back into the house, forcing one of the rooms to be repainted.
One of their more unusual calls resulted in the discovery of a number of children’s toys in a fireplace.
It wasn’t a visit from Santa Claus, though. The house had two floors, with an enclosed stovepipe on the second floor. The kids who lived there figured out how to remove the cover and decided it would be a good place to put some of their toys.
While none of Sumner’s sweeps suffered a serious fall from a roof, there were minor roof slips and the occasional landing in a snow bank, Al said.
Scott had an embarrassing affair. He was inside a house reaching for the flue with a screwdriver to remove creosote when his arm got stuck. After spending quite a bit of time trying to free him, Shannon, a firefighter, suggested they might need to call the fire department.
“No,” Scott told him. “I will never hear the end of it.”
“We would have flipped every truck and called other cities too,” Shannon joked.
With this prompting, Scott was finally able to free himself.
Although they give each other a hard time, the brothers say they enjoy working together.
“We never see each other,” said Shannon, who works for maintenance at Gould Academy. “We spend time together doing this.”
Scott is Bethel’s Director of Public Works.
They and Al also enjoyed seeing all the people whose chimneys they clean.
“A lot of people were our friends,” Al said. “We would stay and visit them.”
He said any job he does now is in the field, which leaves him doing most of the talking these days while his sons load up the truck after a job.
They also sometimes take advantage of their customers’ cooking, leaving with fresh bread or biscuits.
Scott and Shannon sometimes brought their children with them to help with cleaning chores.
Scott remembers once looking for one of his boys to do something at a dorm and found him in the kitchen eating cake and pie.
The brothers do not know how much longer they will continue to clean the chimneys, because it does not seem that their children plan to do so.
But no matter what the future holds, the family will have decades of fireplace experience to look back on.