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Friday, 13 November 2015 10:22

Slice of life: Chimney sweep shares insights from the treetops

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Dave Lotharius is the guy behind Able Dave’s Chimney. His wife, Dawn, occasionally helps him with the chimney sweep business. Lotharius says safety has to be a key factor in his vocation but admits that it he’s done some “crazy stuff” to service his customers’ homes. Dave Lotharius is the guy behind Able Dave’s Chimney. His wife, Dawn, occasionally helps him with the chimney sweep business. Lotharius says safety has to be a key factor in his vocation but admits that it he’s done some “crazy stuff” to service his customers’ homes. Terry Mayer

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- A former General Motors worker and commercial driver, Dave Lotharius is approaching his 25th year as a chimney sweep.

He started out by working on the chimney crew of a friend and now runs his own business, Able Dave’s Chimney Services, with help on occasion from his wife, Dawn.

Lotharius estimates only 10 percent of his work is sweeping -- the rest is tuck-pointing and masonry -- but it’s a job he truly enjoys.

He’s a fixture in the community of Honey Creek, where he lives in a 19th century house that was a former tavern and restaurant.

Listen in to this slice of life from Lotharius ...

If these walls could talk

I’ve been living here for 20 years and I still have people pull up in front of the house, stop and just stare. When I first moved here, I wondered what the heck was going on. I’d go out and talk to people, and they’d say, “We’re just seeing if the restaurant is still here. Best duck around.”

People would tell me stories. A We Energies guy working on the wires around here said, “I remember being here in the bar and my buddy got stabbed.” Two summers ago, I had an old Cadillac pull up in front. The couple inside were older than dirt. The woman had owned this place back in the 1940s. It was built in 1853 and it didn’t have electricity or water until the 1940s when she owned it. She was just staring at it. I couldn’t imagine what was going through her head.

Keep them clean

When I’m doing a chimney sweep, I’m all about safety and having a safe house. My regular customers know a hot fire is a clean fire. You don’t burn wet wood. You don’t burn soft wood. I’ll even go out and look at their wood pile. All my regular customers are really good at burning and they burn really well, but you still have to get the chimney cleaned now and then because even soot and ash build up. You might not have the possibility of a chimney fire, but it can still be plugged.

One customer I had, thank God they couldn’t get their fireplace lit, they would have burned their house down because the chimney was filled with creosote. Another customer had raw gas running off a pilot valve. I smelled it when I was at the top of the chimney. They had an old furnace they hadn’t used in years. They had a new furnace system put in, but the thing never had the gas cut off of it, and it was still vented into that chimney, so that raw gas was running up the chimney.

What’s in your chimney?

I’ve found ducks and squirrels -- you name it. Raccoons are pretty common in chimneys, but you wouldn’t think you’d find a duck -- a mallard -- in the bottom of a chimney. It’s like, what the heck?

I try to be critter-friendly, but keep critters out of the house. I put a chimney cap on last week because the people said raccoons had gotten into the house last year and boy, did they do the damage.

Up on the roof

I get the strangest jobs. It’s kind of funny. Where chimneys are, it’s always a high adventure. I’ve got poles that are attached to each other, 5 feet long, so I can keep adding on and adding on. Some of these roofs are crazy steep. I had one two weeks ago that originally when I looked at it, I told the guy, “You’re going to have to get someone else to do it. You need a crane to get in there. I don’t know how you’re gonna get to this thing without doing crazy stuff.”

Well, I ended up talking myself into doing the job and doing crazy stuff. And I ended up doing three rings of scaffolding off of a steep roof to get to the chimney. It was like 30 or 40 trips up and down carrying scaffolding, one piece at a time. But it’s fun. I actually found myself on that job just enjoying the setup. Part of the challenge of the job is the setup.

House calls

I actually worked on the Snow White Cottage in Green Bay. It’s a historical site in Brown County, built in 1923. The house could be in a movie. The cutest little thing you ever saw. It looks like a little Hobbit house, 450 square feet.

The lady who bought it, I had worked on her houses over the years. She called me up the day she bought it and said, “I don’t trust anybody up here. If you come up, I’ll not only pay for the estimate, but you can stay here while you’re working.”

So I got to stay in the Snow White Cottage for four days and it was a really cool experience. I was happy to be part of the job.

Safety first

I’ve had no mishaps. I’m into the safety factor. You look at where I am and one mishap is the end. You really have to be conscious of where you’re stepping all the time. And even though it might not look it, I’m always aware of where I am.

But I’ve had people who couldn’t watch me, customers who say, “I can’t watch. I’ve got to go inside.”

Roof with a view

If I was into the Internet more, I’ve thought about doing views from the chimney top type of thing. My favorite part of chimney sweeps is standing on top of the chimney running the brush.

I mean the inside part, you’ve got to go in and clean out the bottom -- it’s dirty and nasty and it’s not that much fun. But when I’m standing on the roof, particularly the top of the chimney -- because when you’re running the brush, sometimes you can’t stand next to the chimney, you have to stand on top of it -- then you’re playing the Dick Van Dyke chimney guy, running the brush. If nobody’s watching, I will sing (“Chim Chim Cher-ee”).

Life imitating art

Oh yeah, I’ve seen (“Mary Poppins”). I still have a top hat. I haven’t worn it for years. When I first started sweeping, I put the top hat on once in a while. But you know what, it’s already dangerous enough, and to have to worry about this hat on my head ... Well, I stick my head in lots of tight places, so the hat didn’t work for me.

-- Staff writer Margaret Plevak interviewed Lotharius for this story.

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