(October 2009) Ables, who grew up in Brady, owns and runs Ables Top Hat Chimney Sweeps. He has been sweeping chimneys in Central Texas for almost thirty years.
When I was 28, my wife and I moved into a house in Brady, and I started looking for someone who could sweep our chimney. We had just moved from Kerrville, where I’d been working at a radio station, so that I could work with my dad as a housepainter. I’d had some health problems, so I’d decided to get out of radio and live near family. As I asked around about chimney cleaning, no one had any idea. But everyone I talked to said, “If you find a chimney sweep, let me know.” Suddenly I said, “Wait a minute. Is this my next career?”
I had never met a chimney sweep, unless you count the time I saw Dick Van Dyke play one in Mary Poppins. I also didn’t know the first thing about chimney sweeping. My initial impression was probably like everyone’s: You climb the chimney, sweep with a broom, and soot comes down and blackens your face and nearly chokes you to death.
But then I ordered a training manual. The manual taught me that there are easier ways to sweep, with brushes that go all the way up the chimney. I said, “Okay, I can do this,” and I mail-ordered $2,000 worth of equipment from some place in New England. I had to cash in my life insurance policy to pay for it. I had just enough money left over to buy myself a top hat and tuxedo. I’d heard a story about how in the old days a few chimney sweeps had found some discarded tuxedos behind a funeral home and started wearing them. Back then chimney sweeps were the dregs of society, and these men thought the tuxedos might improve their reputation. The tuxedo tradition then supposedly caught on with chimney sweeps all over, and I thought it would be a good marketing tool if I wore a tuxedo too.
It was indeed a good marketing tool. It got people talking. One of my first clients was someone from my church, the Church of Christ in Brady. He opened the front door, and there I was in my tuxedo, and he said, “What in the world? Has poor Doug Ables lost his mind?”
There are basically two types of chimneys: the standard masonry chimney or the prefab metal chimney. It’s the prefab chimneys that are going into most of the new houses now. Most people don’t realize that the metal chimneys need more cleaning than the regular brick masonry ones. You need to clean a metal chimney every year, but for a masonry chimney, it’s once every couple years—except if you’re the kind of person who keeps a fire burning daily during the winter.
After I made a presentation at the Lions Club one day, some guy came up and told me that chimneys didn’t need to be cleaned. He said I was ripping people off. Two weeks later, on a very cold day when the temperature was down to zero, one of my sons looked out the window and started shouting, “Daddy, a house is on fire!” And it was a chimney fire at this very man’s house. He would never talk to me after that.
The problem is that people usually don’t know what’s in their chimney. It’s the most mysterious part of their home. I’ve gotten squirrels, raccoons, birds, and snakes out of chimneys. But my main job is to get out the creosote, the soot that’s full of dangerous carbon materials. It builds up, and if it catches on fire, then watch out. A regular fire in the fireplace can heat the chimney up to 1,200 degrees. But if the creosote gets ignited, then the temperature can reach 2,300 degrees. Sparks start flying out like fireworks; they catapult onto the roof, and once that fire gets going, there’s almost nothing the fire department can do to stop it. In an ordinary job, I get 2 to 3 gallons of creosote out of a chimney, though there was one time I got 65 gallons out. I told the owner he was very lucky.
When I go to someone’s house, I put drop cloths all around the fireplace, and then I set up a huge vacuum with a 30-gallon drum in the fireplace itself. When I first started working, I’d do all my cleaning from the top down. I’d use a ladder to climb the chimney, then start brushing. I’d have various brushes on different poles, and everything that fell from the sides of the chimney would go straight into the vacuum. Now I do the majority of my work from below. I have twenty brushes, each of them designed to fit different-sized chimneys. Each brush is connected to a long coil, and I just let the coil out as I sweep, working the brush back and forth. The whole thing can uncoil sixty feet, enough to get you to the top of a two-story chimney. With the vacuum catching everything below, there is surprisingly little mess.
We now live in Copperas Cove, near Killeen, and I charge residents $80 to clean a one-story chimney and $90 to do a two-story chimney. If someone calls me from another town or out in the hinterlands, my fee runs up to $165. I’ve driven in my van as far out as Waco and San Angelo. One Saturday I went to a town and did twelve chimneys. People would see me around the town and say, “Hey, when you get finished with that one, can you come do mine?” Just the other day, a lady from Mississippi wanted me to drive to her home and take a dead squirrel out of her chimney. That’s too far, but we told her about another chimney sweep who lives near her. I know a lot of them around the country. I bet there are probably a couple thousand of us in all.
In my entire career, I’ve fallen off a house three times. Two of those falls happened in the past month. I got bloodied up and was pretty sore. It wasn’t bad, but it made me start thinking that the time was coming to give up my tuxedo. I want to keep the business in the family. One of my sons is a policeman in Temple, and he helps me on occasion, but he doesn’t have any desire to take it over. My other son has also helped but is now at West Point. What’s interesting is that two of my grandsons, who are nine and ten, love what I do. They come out and help me, and I pay them a small fee per chimney. I’ve already given them their own tuxedos.