Chimney sweeps Shannon, Albert and Scott Sumner show brushes they use on chimneys. Bethel Citizen photo by Alison Aloisio

BETHEL — The Sumner family of Bethel has been in the chimney sweep business for more than 80 years, across three generations.

Although the demand for the service today is not what it was in the earlier part of the 20th century, Albert “Al” Sumner Jr. and his sons, Scott and Shannon, say a big reason they continue to do it is the opportunity to visit with people they don’t see regularly.

The service was started by Al’s father, Albert Sumner Sr.

Al, 80, and his sister, Eleanor Brooks, say their dad was doing it for as long as they can remember.

Al started cleaning at about age 12, and as is still the case, the Sumners cleaned chimneys nights and weekends, since everyone had other jobs.

A carpenter by day, Al remembers doing 12 or 15 chimneys in West Paris in a single weekend day.

Today they average about 30 regular customers a season.

They used the traditional brushes to clean, but also employed a heavy metal device they called a rigging, used to initially knock large pieces of creosote from the chimney walls. In those early years a cleaning was typically $2, climbing to around $10 a couple of decades later, Al said.

Scott and Shannon started helping when they were about 9, initially just riding along to learn about the skill.

“You have to stand on top of the chimney,” Al said.  “They started that around 12 or 13.”

While most of the cleaning happens nights and weekends in the fall, the Sumners have found themselves called out unexpectedly.

Al remembers one instance when a homeowner called him about 9 p.m. about a cleaning. Al told the person he would put him on his cleaning list.

“‘I want you to come now!'” Al recalls the man saying.

It turned out he had built a fire in his stove for the first time one autumn and the chimney was plugged.

So off went Al, turning car lights on the house to light the way enough to reach the chimney.

Another regular customer called them out five times one winter, the result of filling a wood stove with wood and then just letting it smolder all day — a quick way to build up creosote.

Then there was the trip to Andover when a man called, only to learn his wife did not think the chimney needed cleaning. A few days later the smoke backed up into the house, requiring repainting one of the rooms.

One of their most unusual calls resulted in the discovery of a number of children’s toys in a chimney.

It wasn’t a visit from Santa Claus, however. The house had two stories, with a closed-off stove pipe on the second floor. The children living there figured out how to get the cover off and decided that would be a good place to store some of their toys.

An old photo showing Albert Sumner’s father, Albert Sumner Sr., standing on top of the chimney of a Bethel home. Submitted photo

While none of the Sumner sweeps has had a serious fall from a roof, there have been minor slides down a roof and an occasional landing in a snowbank, Al said.

Scott had one embarrassing adventure. He was inside a house reaching up into the flue with a screwdriver to knock off creosote when his arm got stuck. After spending a fair amount of time trying to free it, Shannon, a firefighter, suggested they might need to call the Fire Department.

“No,” Scott told him. “I’d never hear the end of it.”

“We’d have rolled every single truck, and called other towns, too,” Shannon joked.

With that incentive, Scott was eventually able to free himself.

Despite giving each other a hard time, the brothers say they enjoy the work together.

“We never see each other,” said Shannon, who works for Gould Academy maintenance. “We get to spend time together doing this.”

Scott is the public works director for Bethel.

They and Al have also enjoyed seeing all the people whose chimneys they clean.

“A lot of people were our friends,” Al said. “We’d stay and visit with them.”

He said any work he does now is on the ground, which leaves him to do most of the chatting these days while his sons load up the truck after a job.

They also sometimes benefit from their customers’ cooking, going home with fresh bread or biscuits.

Scott and Shannon have occasionally brought their children along to help with cleaning tasks.

Scott remembers one time looking around for one of his boys to do something at a residence and finding him in the kitchen being fed cake and pie.

The brothers aren’t sure how much longer they will continue cleaning chimneys because it doesn’t appear their children plan to pursue it.

But regardless of what the future holds, the family will have decades of chimney lore to look back on.

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