As long as there have been chimneys, they’ve needed sweeping. The first ordinance making it a requirement was passed in England in 1582, and increasing industrialization made the process all the more important. Early on, six was considered the ideal age to enter training as an apprentice sweep—strong enough for the climb, small enough to shimmy through the tight, filthy, hot space. Children were apprenticed out from the workhouse or otherwise sold into the chimney life.
During the 19th century, awareness grew that the inside of a fireplace flue was no place for a human of any size; regulations tightened, and chimneys slimmed down; it was only after 1900, when children being forced up chimneys had largely faded into memory, that chimney sweeping became somewhat romanticized, peaking in 1964 with the iconic Bert from Mary Poppins. (“Though I spends me time in the ashes and smoke/In this ‘ole wide world there’s no ‘appier bloke.”)
In 1978, 14 years after the dizzy glee of Chim Chim Cheree, Mike O’Connor founded Mad Hatter Chimney Sweeps, inspired not by any illusions of unending bliss but by the fact that lots of people around Ulster County needed their chimneys swept. His son Flynn, current owner of Mad Hatter, began helping out in elementary school. “Dad named it that because of the traditional top-hat and Alice in Wonderland,” says the younger O’Connor. “I still have his original hat, too. There used to be ads in Mother Earth News, promoting the profession—you could send away for the tools and the training manual.”
In 1978, Mike O’Connor founded Mad Hatter Chimney Sweeps. His son Flynn, current owner of Mad Hatter, began helping out in elementary school.
“Dad named it that because of the traditional top-hat and Alice in Wonderland. I still have his original hat, too.” – Flynn O’Connor
With the energy crisis on at that time, many homeowners were turning to wood or coal to stay warm, and a clean flue was as important to health and safety as ever. Many houses still had older stone chimneys, and the O’Connors not only cleaned chimneys, they installed the stainless steel liners that—then and now—made fireplaces much safer and simpler.' “When I was a kid, you needed two people to install the stainless liners—it involved hooking two sections together inside the chimney, and Dad couldn’t have some random person doing it—so he taught me and I’d go with him and do that on Saturdays,” says O’Connor. “When we started, a lot of the stuff that we were working on was older. There are still some chimneys around here that are hundreds of years old, though that’s gotten rarer. But there are a lot that were redone around mid-century, and those IBM-era ones are past their prime now too.”
Happily, with modern flues far too small to accommodate even a wee child, O’Connor’s state-of-the-art arsenal of inspection cameras, rotating brushes, and rods does the trick, allowing chimneys to be cleaned from below. Infrared cameras are used to check for leaks. O’Connor uses (and represents at trade shows) the SnapLok line of chimney-cleaning equipment, manufactured in Connecticut by its inventor, a longtime friend. “We cover all fuel types, but we don’t do masonry chimneys any more—we just have too many annual cleanings to do, and those jobs are extremely labor-intensive; we just don’t have the manpower,” he says. “But we do have a mason we can recommend.”
Even if you don’t have a wood stove, you need a chimney sweep. “Chimneys for central heating should be serviced annually, checked, and tuned up, or your efficiency can go down 20 percent,” says Flynn O’Connor.
Mad Hatter works closely with local retailers and installers like Fireside Warmth in Phoenicia. “They got started just a couple years before my dad; they were always friends, and the alliance just continued into this generation,” says O’Connor. “We work together really well—there’s a similar vibe around hard work, customer service, and safety.”
Even if you don’t have a wood stove, you need a chimney sweep. “Chimneys for central heating should be serviced annually, checked, and tuned up, or your efficiency can go down 20 percent,” says O’Connor. “People tend not to think about it—every year we get emergency calls for blockages and collapsed tiles, all the way up to houses where everything has been updated, but the boiler chimney’s been run all winter long, every winter, since the 1950s. People tend to assume that when the furnace gets serviced, the chimney is checked out, but the furnace people don’t have the equipment for that, so those systems are often much more neglected than wood-burning systems, with a lot of deteriorated masonry from sulfur and heating oil. Trust me: you don’t want unplanned heat loss, but carbon monoxide poisoning is far worse.”
The best time to get your chimney serviced is in spring or early summer, long before the rush, because fall backlogs can get crazy. “Plan ahead, call and get it serviced when you’re done for the year and you won’t have to think about it,” says O’Connor.
Technology has come a long way during this latest wave of interest in greener heat. “Just last Wednesday I installed a new wood stove of my own, and it’s mind-blowing,” says O’Connor. “The emissions are super clean, there’s almost no smoke to bother the neighbors, and a much lower risk of chimney fires. It’s supposed to run 24 hours on one load of wood; my old one would only do 12.” Sure, chimney cleaning’s in his blood, but did the younger O’Connor ever seek employment farther afield?
“I did try a ‘normal’ job once,” he recalls. “After one week it was, ‘Okay, that’s enough of that.’ I got started on this young, and my father and I had quite a journey, from childhood on through becoming partners and me ultimately buying him out. I still have the top hat, he’s down in Florida, but you know what’s funny? Neither of us has ever watched Mary Poppins. It’s like this weird aversion thing. But we did actually go jumping from roof to roof down on the Strand in Kingston one time, just because we could, which felt a bit like something they’d do in a movie.”
Mad Hatter Chimney Sweeps
84 Rochester Center Road, Accord, NY