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