Saga of the fascinating reinvention of chimney sweeping business

Millions of Americans burn wood in fireplaces and wood burning stoves to generate heat. Some, myself included, ignite logs in fireplaces to engender coziness on frigid winter nights. Were you aware that by the late 1960′s most Americans had stopped burning wood for heating? With modernizations in central heating they were mostly igniting other fuels for heat.

Fifty years ago something significant occurred and altered the heating lifestyles of many people. If you were around then you might recall what took place. That was our first major oil crisis — the expense of heating with petroleum based products subsequently rose significantly.

That’s when many people in the USA decided they should consider other heating alternatives, like burning wood. In his new book, “Up from the Ashes,” Jim Gillam explains how that first oil shock created the impetus for the revival of the chimney sweeping trade in this country, an occupation that had almost vanished by the time the oil crisis took place in 1973.

While petroleum prices soared people began searching for alternatives, like wood burning stoves. Consumers were installing those stoves and looking at fireplaces which had not been employed for heat in a long time. Firewood became a commodity as Americans began burning wood again for heating.

Following the first post crisis wood burning season some people began to observe burning wood creates a substance; creosote, and if that gooey tar-like matter was allowed to accumulate it could present a potent hazard. When creosote inside a chimney flue ignites it can burn a house down.

Consumers began searching out chimney sweeps to clean sooty flues. And since there were barely any chimney sweeps in existence at that point it created an instant opportunity for people to recreate the trade from the ground up, That’s what happened.

Gillam traces the formation of the modern chimney sweep business in this country. It began with a few people. He details the endeavors of entrepreneurs who recreated and developed the craft as they went along. They were visionary problem solvers. Companies began selling chimney sweeping kits.

That’s how the author got started in the trade, he bought a kit, and soon he had his own chimney sweeping service in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Later on he became the publisher of an industry trade publication, “The Chimney Sweep News,” and over the years that he ran it he became familiar with many of the unknown geniuses who brought this formerly dead industry back to a vigorous, expansive life.

They transformed a seasonal trade with just a few guys driving around in vans into a year-round, essential service with fleets of trucks dispatched to sweep chimneys across the land. In “Up From the Ashes” we meet the innovators and we learn about their inventions in an industry which ultimately transitioned from primitive hand held brushes to specialized high tech devices.

Do you exhaust burning wood through a chimney? Have you gotten your annual chimney sweeping? If not, schedule one right away, before they become too busy!

Vick Mickunas of Yellow Springs interviews authors every Saturday at 7 a.m. and on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). For more information, visit Contact him at