Chimney sweep gets grins with formal work attire, but his job is no laughing matter
Patti Sells | News-Telegram Feature Editor

At the demand of his clients, chimney sweep Larry Jenkins now dons new attire in the form of a top hat and coat to keep his customers happy. "You wouldn't believe how often people ask me where my top hat and coat are," he said.
Staff Photo By Ricky Russell

January 16, 2004 -- Silhouetted against a Northeast Texas sky and decked out in his top hat and coat, Larry Jenkins might be mistaken for one of the dancing chimney sweep characters straight from the Hollywood set of Walt Disney's 1964 classic, "Mary Poppins."

"I get lots of laughs," said Jenkins of his latest attire. "And that makes my job that much more enjoyable."

According to the 54-year-old, after receiving numerous queries as to where his "top hat and tails" were, he decided to give his customers what they wanted and began donning the traditional garb.

"You wouldn't believe how many people ask me that question," said Jenkins, a chimney sweep in Hopkins County and surrounding areas for the past eight years. "So I decided it would be a good gimmick for my business."

The closest he's come to dancing across a rooftop however, occurred when he came upon a nest of baby squirrels inside a chimney.

"The mom wasn't there, thank goodness, or I would have been doing a song and dance routine," he laughed.

Birds and bats are among his most common encounters, but are not the only risk factors involved with his work. He said falling off a roof and breathing creosote are also hazards. Good balance and wearing a mask remedy those factors, he explained.

Creosote is a highly flammable residue that builds up inside chimneys and interferes with the draw of smoke. When a home begins filling up with smoke, it is a good indication that the chimney needs swept.

Though the origin of the top hat and tails tradition remains unclear, chimney sweeps themselves first appeared in Europe more than 200 years ago after chimney fires began destroying neighborhoods in England. A law was implemented that required chimneys to be cleaned every six months.

"In early years young boys, usually orphans, would go up into the chimney as 'human brushes' and scrape the pipe," said Jenkins.

But children started dying of lung disease from breathing the toxic soot, and the practice was reportedly abolished.

Staff Photo By Patti Sells

Legend also has it that in Ireland it was common practice to tie a rope around a goose and lower it down into the chimney. The bird would panic and start flapping its wings, which in turn cleaned the chimney.

In the mid-1800s, wire brushes attached to flexible, expandable rods were invented for cleaning chimneys, and haven't changed that much since.

One thing that hasn't changed a bit is the fact that it takes a lot of elbow grease.

"It's mainly manual labor and getting dirty," Jenkins admitted. "But somebody's got to do it."

According to Jenkins, he's the only chimney sweep in Hopkins County, and his service has grown in demand as customers become more and more aware of the hazards and risks of chimney fires.

"I average about 400 homes each winter, and that number keeps growing," he said. "Still, I haven't hit a third of the houses in the area."

He said many of his customers are repeat customers who realize the importance of maintaining their chimneys. Unfortunately some have had to learn the hard way he said.

"Having your chimney cleaned is cheap insurance," said Jenkins, whose fee ranges from $75 and up.

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