Community July 29, 2008

The Valley’s Dirty Work

Sweep out the myths: That vision of Dick Van Dyke dancing like a crazy crow across the rooftops of London. Your image of chimney sweeps as rakish and carefree men in top hats and tails. The notion that they are men. It's Time to Sweep the Mindset Clean.

For starters, few chapters in the annals of child exploitation are as grim as the plight of the chimney sweep in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain. It’s a scene right out of Oliver Twist, and worst of all, it’s true: Orphaned children as young as four were sold to master sweeps and sent up the narrow walls of chimneys to scrape away accumulated soot with their bare hands and chisel off tar with metal scrapers. It was legal to capture homeless or vagrant children off the street and press them into slavery as chimney sweeps. The ideal candidate would be young and malnourished, the better to scramble up chimneys as narrow as three feet and as high as 60. Frightened children were encouraged to get a move on by lighting a fire under them. (Our modern expression, in fact, derives from this practice). And if a young sweep managed to survive getting stuck, being choked or falling on a daily basis, he had a lifetime of breathing problems and testicular cancer to look forward to.

And yet, despite bills repeatedly introduced into the House of Lords in the early 1800s protesting the abuse, and social advocates who urged replacing children with the new and specialized equipment being developed by a Bristol engineer named Joseph Glass, the practice continued. The sad economics of the times won out over Mr. Glass’ wooden canes and whalebone brushes: children were simply cheaper. 

Economics, as it happens, also came to the rescue. In a bill introduced in 1864 by the reformer, Lord Shaftesbury, a stiff new penalty of 10 pounds was charged to anyone under age 21 caught climbing a chimney—and it was widely supported and enforced by police and the courts. Ten pounds was expensive! The practice came to a halt.

Fast forward to Ketchum in the ‘80s. If you were a young ski bum and new in town, a few things became immediately apparent: 1) Vuarnets—big, black, oversized and ubiquitous—would be your sunglasses. 2) The Coffee Grinder would be your place to hang out. And 3) Byron Goheen would be your resident philosopher. He was the one sitting in the Coffee Grinder (or in the lineup outside in his big black Vuarnets), drinking coffee at all hours. When he wasn’t there, he was on top of one of the Valley’s roofs, sweeping chimneys. And when he wasn’t there, he was running the movie projector for the Sun Valley Opera House at night. Wire-haired, energetic, effusive, Goheen could hold forth on quantum physics, atomic theory and inventions; he tinkered with electricity and a modified ski boot design, and designed some ski pole grips. He was an iconoclast and a renegade. (In short, the perfect Ketchum character.)

“He was a great man. A sweetheart. And a genius,” says Kim Rogers, who began working for Goheen, along with Liz Wallace, in 1990. At the time, Rogers was working at Chapter One Bookstore; Wallace was across the street, waitressing at the Western Café. Vuarnets were no longer required eyewear by then, but other universal ski bum truths still applied—chief among them, the importance of working several jobs. And so, when Byron offered the women (who didn’t know each other at the time) the chance for a little extra work in the long slow slack seasons of spring and fall—they jumped.

Or rather, they climbed. “I don’t even think I asked what the job was. The main thing I cared about was what it paid,” says Rogers. “I showed up that first day wearing shorts, short sleeves—not at all appropriate for cleaning chimneys. Byron was so casual; he never told us to wear black, to wear long sleeves, to be ready for dirt.”

He did, however, eventually teach Rogers and Wallace everything. The physics of chimney mechanics. The poetry of brushes and brooms. And, of course, Byron being Byron, he instilled in them a uniquely Byron-esque view of business. You might say they graduated from B-school, and this is what they learned:
• Always take a proper coffee break and lunch break.
• Give deals to little old ladies.
• Charge strangely eccentric prices. A typical invoice: $128.78.
• Be generous in your talents and in your life.
This last value, that of generosity, is the reason Rogers and Wallace are the owners of Swept Away today. For when Goheen died in 2003—suddenly, of a heart attack—he left his chimney sweeping business to them. >>>


Rogers and Wallace arrive for this interview straight from a job. (“Cover your chairs, you don’t want us sitting on your upholstery.”) Rogers is energetic and frank, with volatile brown eyes and the let’s-take-a-look manner of someone used to poking her head up a dark, narrow flue. (Which she proceeds to do, by the way. Prognosis: Needs cleaning.) Her partner is more soft-spoken, quick to laugh and eager to be of help. They know they’re in an unusual line of work, and are used to people’s reactions: They get it all the time.

“Are people charmed by the fact that we’re two women, and doing this work? Definitely,” notes Rogers. “I think women in particular feel safe having women come into their house.” 

“We were in Home Depot recently with my husband and Kim’s boyfriend looking at ladders,” recalls Wallace. “And we were testing out various weights and looking at technical specs, when the salesperson came up and asked the men if he could help them. The guys just pointed to us and said, ‘Ask them.’”
Between the two of them they’ve been up on many of the rooftops in the Valley. They’ve tackled “nightmare chimneys” with big elbows that are difficult to navigate with a brush, and even worse to clean up after. They’ve taken on a house with 12 chimneys, including several in bathrooms. They’ve scoured through whole condominium projects, and done favors for little old ladies. And they’ve continued to this day the tradition Byron began of treating employees well, taking time out for coffee, buying their lunches, and paying them during both breaks. “We’re very fortunate. We feel blessed in what we’ve been given,” says Rogers simply.
And then . . . there are the benefits of the job itself. A chimney sweep has the freedom to set his or her own schedule. Work is plentiful in slacktime: spring is a sweep’s busy season, cleaning out chimneys from a winter’s use. Falls are busy, too, as homeowners once more turn their thoughts to the comfort of a cozy fire on chillier nights. That leaves blissful winters off to ski and long summer days for playing or pursuing other jobs.

But the #1 perk? “Autumn on the roofs. We have the best views of the leaves, right at the top of the trees and it’s absolutely spectacular,” Rogers recalls.
And so perhaps after all, one old bit of chimney sweep lore is true: the notion that sweeps are lucky. At least in this Valley. At least in this day and age.


This article appears in the Winter 2007 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.