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Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011 05:55 am

Chimney sweep is sweeping up

Bill Klein wants to hang up his broom

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After nearly four decades as a chimney sweep, Bill Klein knows both ends of the business.
PHOTOS BY BRUCE RUSHTON

Reaching into a pocket, Bill Klein pulls out a tiny swatch of soot-stained red cloth.

“Here,” he says to a smiling client. “I found this. Santa must have torn his pants.”

It’s an “aha” moment that’s been repeated thousands of times by a man who’s been sweeping Springfield’s chimneys for nearly four decades, and it never fails – Klein says he once received a thank-you card from parents who credited the trick with giving them one more year to hang stockings with still-believing children.

If you own a fireplace or woodstove and have a healthy respect for chimney fires, there is a good chance you know Klein, one of three chimney sweeps who work the Springfield area. But he says his days as a sweep are numbered. After 37 years of creosote and crouching, he has put the business up for sale.

“I’m 67, and I just can’t do it the way I used to,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity, if you don’t mind working hard.”

Klein’s love affair with fireplaces dates to age 19, when he got a job helping build them. He had left school to work construction, but the job didn’t last. Classified 1A, he was drafted and sent to Vietnam, where wounds he received gave him extra points when he applied for a state job, eventually becoming a labor relations manager with the Illinois Department of Revenue.

After more than 20 years on the state payroll and cleaning chimneys on the side, Klein left his day job in the mid-1990s to become a full-time sweep. It is, he says, a living.

“I make half the money, but I’m 10 times happier,” he says as he hurtles toward yet another job in a van that’s a reverse Oreo: white on the outside and soot everywhere else.

Scribbled notes on the dashboard betray Klein’s political leanings, which he makes known in frequent letters to the editor published in the State Journal-Register: “Obama Is the O In Socialism” and “Legalize the Constitution.” He’s a big supporter of the Second Amendment and favors Glocks, but he owes his livelihood to liberals.

“I read an article in Mother Jones that said chimney sweeps are cleaning up,” Klein recalls of his start in the sweeping biz.

After cleaning his own fireplace and a neighbor’s in exchange for a case of beer, he figured he was qualified, and so started putting fliers in mailboxes near Washington Park, where he thought word-of-mouth would be an ally.

“When I got home, I asked my wife if anyone had called,” Klein said. “She had a page-and-a-half of people who had called.”

He has sometimes learned the hard way, spending more than a few hours struggling to get recalcitrant brushes – some of his own design – out of flues.

“Leonardo da Vinci said a true artist makes his own tools,” Klein says.

When a chimney is particularly dirty, Klein chides gently, telling a client that they should be friends more often. He can also tell you how to stop a fireplace from smoking – and it does not involve pre-heating the flue with a flaming torch made from newspaper. And he can wax eloquent in the style of Chance the Gardener.

“A lot of the problems of the world could be solved if people would just burn good wood,” he proclaims. “But no – that would be too easy.”

On a good day, a sweep can clean as many as eight chimneys at $100 per job, says Klein, whose daily tally now is closer to five. But the work isn’t steady, with most business coming between Labor Day and Christmas.

Klein knows the history of his craft, how small boys were once sent inside English chimneys to clean them and how cancer of the scrotum was once known as chimney sweep’s cancer, owing to a lack of bathing facilities and plethora of benzene-laden soot that found its way to nether regions and stayed too long. At one point, he says, Europeans limited the number of chimneys a sweep could clean each day owing to health problems rooted in soot – and the sweeps were outraged.

“They said, ‘This is going to destroy our business,’” Klein says. “Heard that before?”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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