Jeff Schmittinger, the owner and founder of Wisconsin Chimney Technicians in Waukesha, Wisc., has been cleaning the chimneys at the White House for 19 consecutive years and three administrations, and he still hasn’t been paid.
To be fair, he never asked for a dime. Schmittinger first volunteered for the gig in 1993, after hearing President Bill Clinton address Congress about the dire state of the federal deficit. Wanting to do his part, he called the White House and offered to clean the 35 chimneys at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for free. “I didn’t think they’d take me up on it,” he admits. “I was shocked.” The job has gotten easier over the years; when he first showed up, the chimneys were caked with soot from countless presidencies. He used two vacuums during that inaugural clean, he says, “because we weren’t going to leave the White House and have it not be a white house anymore.”
One would think that scrubbing chimney walls for the most powerful men on earth would be good for business. The publicity alone should’ve made him the most sought-after chimney sweep in the country. “Not really,” Schmittinger says. “It strokes the ego, but it doesn’t do much for the checkbook.”
Luckily for him, chimney sweeping is one of the few recession-proof industries. “When the economy gets bad,” he says, “people have a tendency to repair what they have, rather than buy new things.” With energy costs rising every year, a fireplace seems an especially good investment. And hiring somebody to scrape away the creosote that builds up on a chimney wall, which causes most chimney fires, is a small price to pay for the savings in heating.
The life of a chimney sweep is considerably less dangerous than it was during the 17th century, when sweepers (usually underage boys) commonly suffocated or burned to death on the job. It can nonetheless be risky. “When I first got into this business [in 1981],” says Schmittinger, “we relied on paper dust masks we’d pick up at the hardware store. Now we have positive-pressure respirators that cover your entire head. But that’s just been over the last few years.” Even with protection against carcinogens, the job still holds frightening moments. Schmittinger knows of at least one fellow sweeper who found a severed human hand in a chimney, allegedly left by a previous owner who had dismembered his wife.
Like any modern chimney sweep, Schmittinger is occasionally a slave to his profession’s cultural cliches. “Sometimes you’ll ring the doorbell [of a new customer] and they’ll ask where your top hat is,” he says. Because he doesn’t want to disappoint, he keeps a full chimney sweep “Chim Chim Cher-ee” costume in his trunk. “If that’s the experience they’re looking for,” he says, “I’m more than happy to dress up and have my picture taken.” If there are children in the house, he’ll even “discover” a tattered piece of red cloth (a sample of which he always carries) in the chimney, ostensibly left behind by Santa Claus. “I’ll give the kids that piece of cloth,” Schmittinger says, “and their eyes get big as saucers.”
Because of centuries-old urban legends, he’s not always hired just for his chimney-cleaning expertise. He’s a regular guest at weddings across southeastern Wisconsin, where it’s supposedly good luck for a bride to see a chimney sweep on her wedding day. Every summer he’s the official mascot at the annual German Fest in Milwaukee (July 26-29). “In the German culture, a chimney sweep is about two steps below god,” Schmittinger says.
He learned just how true that is after befriending a retired German chimney sweep named Bruno (now deceased), who swept chimneys at the Reich Chancellery before World War II. “One morning, Adolf Hitler saw him and said, ‘I’m going to have good luck all day,’” Schmittinger remembers his friend telling him. “Hitler went over and talked to Bruno and asked him how things were going, and Bruno said, ‘Not bad, but it’d be better if I ate regularly.’” Hitler immediately called over an SS officer and instructed him to make sure that Bruno was well-fed for as long as he swept chimneys at the Chancellery.
“It’s amazing, the people you meet being a chimney sweep,” Schmittinger says with a laugh. “He met Adolf Hitler. I met George W. Bush.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on the Bloomberg Businessweek website.)