2017-12-09 / News

Local Sweep Cleaned White House Chimneys

By Jacob A. Ball


Thomas and Stephanie Rhine stand near Bogan Lane Inn, chimney cleaning brush in tow. He says working on Mackinac Island fulfills a professional dream. Thomas and Stephanie Rhine stand near Bogan Lane Inn, chimney cleaning brush in tow. He says working on Mackinac Island fulfills a professional dream. For the last few years, Thomas Rhine has used his trade as a worthwhile excuse to visit Mackinac Island. The certified chimneysweep sees demand for his services here, anywhere from cottages with historic chimneys to new condominiums.

Mr. Rhine has owned All- Chimney Cleaning and Maintenance in Charlotte for three decades and this year was invited by a fellow tradesman from Wisconsin to a volunteer chimney sweeping at the White House. He and eight other sweeps cleaned 25 of the 28 White House chimneys in two days.

Jeff Schmittinger, the Wisconsin chimneysweep, offered his services to the federal government almost 25 years ago. Con- cerns were running high about the national debt, so he called the White House with an offer to save money. White House employees first thought it was a prank, but once they investigated and discovered he was serious, they were happy to accept the offer.


Thomas Rhine of Charlotte at a chimney on the roof of the White House in Washington, D.C. He took part in a volunteer chimney sweeping originally organized to help reduce the national deficit. The Washington Monument and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial are visible over his right shoulder. Thomas Rhine of Charlotte at a chimney on the roof of the White House in Washington, D.C. He took part in a volunteer chimney sweeping originally organized to help reduce the national deficit. The Washington Monument and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial are visible over his right shoulder. Since then, Mr. Schmittinger has returned with a separate group of chimneysweeps every other year. Mr. Rhine says he received an invitation this year based of his membership in the National Chimney Sweep Guild, although the White House job doesn’t involve guild assistance. Mr. Rhine estimated the volunteer sweeps are saving the government $50,000 to $130,000 a year, and this doesn’t account for their travel and accommodations.

Working at the White House was a unique pleasure for Mr. Rhine. He focused on the task at hand and rarely paused to absorb the grandeur of the President’s residence, but he notes that the Map Room was his favorite.

He and the other sweeps never were alone at the White House. Escorts oversaw the work and enforced the rules: no photos, moving furniture, or wandering around unaccompanied. To communicate with one another, they were issued government radios.

Although he considers the trip a highlight of his career, Mr. Rhine prefers returning year after year to Mackinac Island with his wife, Stephanie. He likes his customers enough that he may continue working on the Island even after he retires. He has built his Island clientele mostly through wordof mouth and connections with residents such as Joan Barch and Cordie Puttkammer, whom he says have been gracious and welcoming customers.

Mr. Rhine describes his work on the Island as the fulfillment of a dream. It came about after he met Mrs. Barch while sweeping the chimney at her family’s old East Lansing home. He subsequently was invited to sweep the chimney at her Island residence. He’s now a member of the consortium of off-island businesspeople who provide basic services to the Island’s residents and government agencies.

This year, he rebuilt a chimney for Mackinac Island Bible Church and performed sweepings at eight homes and cottages, including the former residence of Michigan’s longestserving governor, William G. Milliken.

Cleanings and repairs are important for older homes like those on the Island, Mr. Rhine said, because they were built prior to modern building codes that improved the safety of fireplace construction. But, while older Island fireplaces and flues may lack modern clay, ceramic, or metal liners, they get limited use because owners are away during most of the cold seasons.

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