Our featured member this month is Ken Hoelscher with Abbey Road Chimney Sweep. We sat down with Ken in person a few months back to discuss how he became a chimney sweep, what some of his accomplishments are, and why he continues to be a member of the NCSG. You can watch this video interview or view the transcript below.
My name is Ken Hoelscher with Abbey Road Chimney Sweeps in Brookville, Ohio, an area outside of Dayton, Ohio. I’ve been a chimney sweep for, oh gosh, I don’t know how long. I was 5 years old sitting behind an August West vac while my mom was cleaning chimneys and that was my babysitter sitting behind one of those vacs during that time.
What’s a question you get asked most about being a chimney sweep?
Some of the questions I get asked about as a chimney sweep is “Do you guys actually exist?” “Oh wait a minute do you sing and dance up on a rooftop?” “Isn’t that a really dirty job?” You really have to go through people and tell them no it’s not that dirty. If I could sing and dance on the rooftop I might not be sweeping chimneys because I could make a lot more money elsewhere. Yes, we still exist because you still use your fireplace and your furnace and a lot of things use that chimney and venting system.
How did you get started in the industry?
I got started in the industry at a very young age. The company actually was started and founded by my mother, Carol which a lot of the older sweeps know. At the age of 5, I was sitting behind a big red August West vac that was, in essence, my babysitter because she didn’t have anyone to watch me and my brother. We just did that. We would bring equipment in and out. I actually cleaned my first chimney when I was around 10 and have been working on them since. During High School and Jr High mostly during the summers or weekend I was working in the business. After high school I went full time.
What advice do you wish you had received when you were getting started?
Knowing what I know now, it would have been knowing numbers in a business. When you are trying to run a business you need to know your numbers. If I had known these numbers early on I could probably be a lot further in the industry than I am now. Knowing numbers would probably be my most important thing to know.
What is your biggest challenge in the industry and how to do you overcome it?
I think we all know what that one is, it’s finding help and hiring somebody. Everyone has the stigma of the chimney sweep: “Ew, Yuck, Dirty, Nasty…” What we have to do, the way I’ve figured it out, is to change that perspective. You need to let them know it’s not dirty, it’s not nasty, and there’s a lot that goes into it. It’s really big on culture; bring up the culture and let people know how fun it is and just loving the sweeps life.
Who is your most famous customer?
Some famous people I have cleaned chimneys for are prominent news personalities in our area. I have worked with a couple of them. I’m actually good friends with two of them still. They are no longer on TV but we still chat back and forth. I’ve also swept for a couple prominent lawyers, council members, and a few mayors in our area.
Have you ever attended NCSG Convention and if so what’s your favorite takeaway?
Yes, I have. One of the most important things is networking and being able to learn from some of the industry’s best out there. You never know how much information other people have. They might not even have been in the industry that long, but they may have that little nugget that you never would have thought of. So going to one of these conventions is amazing because you are going to talk to so many people all over the country and all over the world and get knowledge that you never would have thought of because you are only thinking in your little box but they are thinking outside of that box. So everybody shares things with everyone else. It’s one of the best things the National Chimney Sweep Guild offers. Having that convention where you can get so many people together. I have learned so much from these greats and all these other people in the industry.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
I would probably say there are two in this industry I have done. One, I don’t see it in myself, but I was awarded the NCSG President’s Award, I see this honor for other people but someone thought I was worthy of this award. So thank you for this prestigious award.
The second thing that I am also very proud of in this industry is that I was selected with a group of other chimney sweeps that were able to go out and clean the chimneys at the White House. It was an amazing thing to be able to do that and do so with some of the other greats that have been there before.
Have you ever had to make you own tool solve a problem?
I think everyone out there knows we’ve all had that tool. We’ve even had tools that we’ve made that hopefully there is not photographic evidence of that tool ever going anywhere because we know that tool might not be “proper”. There’s been many times we’ve made tools and come up with things so we can make use of the things in front of us. You always have to think outside the box in this industry because there are so many variables in what you run into. You oftentimes have to come up with things on the fly. You then remember doing this thing once, I can do it again.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve found in a chimney?
I’ve had two things. One, I actually removed a brick out of chimney and found a hidden strong box. Just a little strong box that inside had old cash and gold coins in it. Sad part was I handed it to the customer and they said they never knew it was there as they just bought the house. I was like great, I might have been able to have kept that. But, me being honest, I didn’t do that.
The second thing I will say was an odd one. It was an owl. There was a dead owl in the chimney. I remember this one really well. I remember reaching my hand over the damper and onto the shelf and as I was pulling my hand back the claw grabbed my hand. That pretty much scared me to death thinking something just grabbed me out of this chimney. It was a quick trip to the bathroom after that event.
What is in your opinion the most valuable part of being a member of NCSG?
A very good question. Mine is the knowledge that they give and the friendships and the people that are out there. I’ve had some dark times and there are people out there that knew me during these dark times and reached out to me during those times and they got me through it. It’s because of friends, they aren’t even friends, they are family to me. That’s how the National Chimney Sweep Guild is; you guys are all family. That right there probably saved me on a lot of things. I love you for that and you guys know who I’m talking about. Thank you.
Thank you, Ken! Send your nominations for the next Meet a Member to Annemarie Stockton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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