The Siblings Dunkl

Island residents for close to forty years, Frank, Peter, and Heidi Dunkl are committed to nature and simple living, while working countless jobs. What they’ve done with the spring water on their Chilmark property and a bottling plant by the airport exemplifies their can-do spirit.

All Frank Dunkl needs is some land and a library card.

He cuts an incongruous figure, Frank, surrounded by the lush, green skunk cabbage and moss-decked oaks of his family’s twenty-three-acre property. In his work scrubs, complete with a packed key chain, well-clipped moustache, and gray hair sprouting from under a company cap, the sixty-four-year-old president of Chilmark Spring Water Company Inc. looks a little like a subway operator.

When you are quite so many things as Frank, a deceptive appearance is surely inevitable. He built Chilmark Spring Water with sister Heidi and brother Peter from scratch, with no industry experience, employing a spring located on their land. But learning something for himself was what he’d done dozens of times before.

Random example: He and Peter taught themselves the relevant mechanics and ran a business repairing Volkswagen cars for twenty-five years, first in New Rochelle, New York, later on the Vineyard. “We know enough about Volkswagens that we could literally make one perfect car out of two chunks,” Frank says.

And how, exactly?

“Library,” he answers, with a characteristic brush of his moustache. “You can get books out of the library about absolutely anything. And the [U.S.] Government Printing Office – that’s where you get some really authoritative information.”

Coming to America

The Dunkl family stuck it out in Czechoslovakia until the end of the Second World War, living in the city through the 1945 Prague Offensive. But in the midst of a Russian takeover and a war of independence, the children and their mother, Gudrun, fled, leaving behind their father, Heinrich, who had been conscripted into the German army several years before. Frank was just a few months old when they left and never met his father.

Sitting at a table one morning with his brother and sister – at the Chilmark Spring Water bottling plant at the business park near the Martha’s Vineyard airport – he is giving a potted Dunkl history, doing the majority of the talking. Heidi, the oldest sibling at sixty-nine, corrects parts of the narrative between answering customer calls and bookkeeping at a nearby work station.

The lean, mustachioed, middle sibling Peter, sixty-five, has the kind of New York accent that gives any statement a word-in-your-ear authority. He says of his father, “It was either fight or the firing squad. How can a man who’s been in the German army come to this country right after the war? It’s not going to work.”

“Plus the fact he’d already taken all his medical studies in Czech and German,” Frank chimes in. “He was just exhausted.”

Heidi was five when she took the eight-seater, wooden aircraft out of Prague, to Stockholm, avoiding the railways used to transport troops, which were a regular bombing target. She has few pleasant memories from the war. “Except one summer we spent in the mountains, which was green and there were cows; it was nice,” she says, “I could have stayed there happily.”

Once they reached Stockholm, the family hopped a ferry bound for New York. The siblings arrived in New York harbor suffering from malnutrition. “We had deformed bone structure, undersized skeletons, and nerve damage,” says Frank. “It took us many, many years for us to get to what you’d call normal health.”

The family settled in a nine-room house in the working-class suburb of New Rochelle with an uncle and grandfather, both called Frank, while the children made their way through school. Young Frank excelled at school and his teachers tried hard to persuade his mother, Gudrun, to force him into college.

But in their early teens, Frank and Peter began playing the French horn professionally – in Broadway shows and in chamber orchestras. Before Frank, the baby, turned eighteen, they were making fifty dollars an hour as musicians. In their spare time, they did antique restoration around New Rochelle.

Heidi became a hand weaver at fifteen, after picking up a second-hand loom from an ad in the paper. Then she started taking the twenty-minute journey into Manhattan on Saturdays with her mother as a chaperone. She began producing clothes out of their home, to sell to stores and at markets. At the height of her business, she had four looms going and could be making six tartan scarves at any one time.

“I liked it. It was fun playing around with it,” she says. “We’d always go to the library and I got out some books on how to rig a loom. I worked for myself and sold what I made: place mats, school hats, scarvesbaby blankets – they were a big hit. It was a typical home industry and it was doing nicely, but you have to market and marketing was never my strong point. We’re not the best salesmen. You can’t do everything.”

It’s a rare admission in a family that appears to thrive on a belief in the opposite.

Growing up, Heidi also did some gardening in a thirty-five-by-one-hundred-foot backyard. “We went to the botanical gardens on weekends in the Bronx,” she says, “and we’d ask the man if he’d mind if we picked up some of the seeds on the floor – tried to sprout ’em. Didn’t really have much success till I came here.” Later on the Vineyard, she borrowed a gardener’s handbook from the library, and she soon filled a greenhouse extension on the property with exotic flowers. It is emptier today since so much of her time is taken up with the water business, but a twenty-year-old bird of paradise planted in a bathtub in a corner of the greenhouse survives as testament.

Committed environmentalists

While the careers of all three siblings were taking off in New York, they became increasingly distraught at the changes they saw in New Rochelle, namely rising crime and the decimation of the natural landscape.

“Ever since we were young, we’ve been environmentalists as family policy,” Frank says, “We were health conscious and we recognized at an early age that human health is directly related to the potential of the environment. You trash the environment, you trash your health. Perhaps we were thirty to forty years ahead of most attitudes in America. We had to be, because of our own health disadvantage.”

Heidi imagines her business would have continued to improve if she’d stayed put, but city life became intolerable. “In the summertime, you could smell the aviation fuel,” she says. “We used to sit in the back garden and a plane would go overhead every three minutes. Plus we were at the spot where the planes would drop their landing gear and the sound was deafening.”

The family weighed the prospects of staying in an urban environment and decided to start looking for some unspoiled land, preferably close to the water. “We grew up in a seacoast community,” explains Frank, “so to go to the prairies or the mountains or something, for us to think about going to a place where we couldn’t take a swim once in a while, we couldn’t conceive of that.”

The Dunkls researched potential destinations with typical diligence, analyzing less-developed seaside towns from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to the northern tip of Vermont. They fixed on a tract of undeveloped land with its own spring in Chilmark that seemed to suit their needs.

But to be sure, the siblings took several trips to the property in the summer of 1960, and on one journey they brought a suitcase filled with Electrolux vacuum cleaner piping. They made their way to the middle of the property next to a natural spring alongside Mill Brook, and forced the piping down twenty-odd feet through the soil. After pulling it back up, they separated the pipes and packed up their case.

Back home in New Rochelle, they laid out the clods of earth onto the kitchen table and performed a core analysis. It was good. Next they sent collected water samples from the spring to a local laboratory, preparing the samples to the chemist’s instructions. Frank says the man phoned him back, angry: The water itself must have been boiled, he complained, not just the containers, because he could find no bacteria at all. But the Dunkls had followed instructions; the water, sifted through the glacial sands in the Island ground, was just that pure. As Frank was to later research, there had been no human activity apart from firewood collection within one thousand feet of the source in recorded history.

They bought the property in 1962 and built a small house there over the following few years. Frank was in his mid- twenties by the time they moved up with their mother and uncle to live full time, in 1971. They have been working, twelve hours a day, seven days a week, ever since. “The irony is we never get to swim,” he says.

Masters of all trades

It’s a well-worn expression that Vineyarders wear a lot of hats in their pursuit of a year-round wage, but the Dunkls take it further than most: Between them the family members could metaphorically outfit most of the Kentucky Derby, though the headgear might be event inappropriate.

“It’s hard to list them all,” says Frank, “but if someone wants us to create a beam from timber, we’ll do it – we know how to do it. If you know if someone wants us to redo the bearing on an old motor, we’ll do it; we’ve done it. We’ve rebuilt machinery for farmers. You want us to make, repair, or design stained-glass windows? No problem. We’ll repair an antique piece of furniture or a clock. We’ll do stone masonry, reinforced concrete work. We can put in a well, design and install a septic system. We can shingle your roof. We can custom make a window frame or a sash for you. We can design, build, and hang a door.Anything you want, we can do it.”

There is also time for Frank and Peter to play French horn for the Vineyard Haven Band, a brass troupe that plays weekly during the summer, at Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs, the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown, and Owen Park in Vineyard Haven. Frank is president.

Somewhat incredibly, Frank insists that they are actually rather picky about the work they take on, particularly if it clashes with their environmental positions. “We’re very discriminatory about what we will or will not do: We won’t clear a lot for a house; we will not put up a new house,” he says.

In the late 1970s, the Dunkls were a family of five with a gross income of less than $3,000 a year. It covered taxes, building maintenance, food, vehicles, and other expenses. If the family needed a new lawn mower, explains Frank, they went to the dumps and picked the best looking one and brought it home. “We’d put $15 worth of parts in it and completely rebuild it – it would last ten years,” he says, “But you can’t do that today; you can’t waste time rebuilding a lawn mower. It’s an irony that time is worth more than material things today. To me, that’s a scourge upon humanity where people have to value every doggone minute of their time. I don’t care for it.”

Frank appreciates frugality.

“We live an old-fashioned lifestyle and to tell you the truth, in the seventies and eighties, before we had electricity here, before we had a telephone, and we had kerosene lamps, it was a lot more pleasant,” he says. “We cooked and heated with a wood range. It was more work and it was a lot slower and a lot less stressful.”

All three are vegetarians and eat organic. “Fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, dairy,” says Frank. “You get better nutrition on less bulk and it’s somewhat cheaper.” In the wake of Hurricane Bob, the Dunkls found work clearing trees on the Vineyard, though Frank and Peter were already in their mid-fifties. “In those days I was 130 pounds, but I was outworking the average guy weighing 230, because as a vegetarian, I had the vigor,” he says. “Most vegetarians have more endurance. The circulatory system’s better and their bodies are cleaner inside.”

Today though, he concedes, there are some things he can’t do. “I’m not an old codger and I can still climb a ladder,” he says, “but I can’t be spending eight hours a day feeding a chipper.”

Earning a living

The Dunkls made a mark on the Vineyard selling organic honey. Raising fifteen hives on their property, they used the bees to help pollinate the garden and sold the natural honey across the Island. Wholesaling initially to Cronig’s Market and later direct at the West Tibsury Farmer’s Market, the honey provided a good trade for more than a decade for the Dunkls. In the process, they became known to many Vineyarders as “the bee people.”

When in one year there was an outbreak of bees at the Steamship Authority’s Vineyard Haven terminal building, it was Frank who was stopped in his truck and was asked to come help out. The siblings grabbed their beekeeping equipment from home and were dispatched to the scene by police escort.

Then in 1987, an Asian parasitic mite swept the country, killing millions of bees over the next several years. The Dunkls hives dropped to three. Unwilling to introduce chemicals to help kill the mites and revive the hives, the family suddenly needed a new central source of income.

While making money from their water hadn’t occurred to the Dunkls back in the 1970s, by the early 1990s mineral water was a growth industry. “We thought if we cannot offer the community organic honey, we’re going to offer ’em organic, quality water,” says Frank, who took out subscriptions to a dozen trade journals, sourced second-hand equipment, and built with Peter sections of the assembly line.

They were told that the plant they wanted, with new equipment installed by an engineer, would cost $3 million. The Dunkls invested hundreds of thousands of hours of research and labor and by 1998, they had a functioning plant at the business park near the Martha’s Vineyard Airport, built for $150,000. The money came from a start-up loan given by family friends William and Katherine Flynn along with three generations of Dunkl family savings. Today William and Katherine, who live in Oak Bluffs, are minority shareholders in the business.

“You read the articles, think about it, call some people in the industry, ask questions,” Frank says, “and also there’s a certain amount of common sense, because you have to configure your set up to work for you.”

Though no matter how much you read, most people couldn’t design, install, and operate a bottling plant.

“Well, my brother and I have always been mechanically inclined,” says Frank. “I took my first alarm clock apart, repaired it, oiled it, and adjusted it, and gave it back to my mother at the age of four. And it worked beautifully for another year until she dropped it again.”

Annually the company sells around 40,000 bottles in twenty-ounce, two-liter, and cooler-size varieties. For years the Dunkls have looked to expand production and have made continuous improvements to the business, but thus far they have failed to turn a profit.

For Frank it comes down to seasonality. The summer Vineyard market supports the expenses of the water business but just for a few months. Staying in the black through the winter would mean expanding to Cape Cod and beyond – difficult to conceive of, without substantial seed money, in a market dominated by Coke, Pepsi, and other Goliaths.

But, once again, Frank’s journals may have come to the rescue: In those pages he learned about compostable bottles, made from commercially viable, clear, corn-derived plastic material. In theory, you would be able to grow tomatoes out of the mulch within eighteen months. It provides the missing environmental link in the Dunkl product. And though they will cost a little more to produce, Frank hopes that a unique selling point may give them the production boost they are after.

They are rolling out the new bottles this summer.

At home in Chilmark

A left turn off North Road on the route to Menemsha, the Dunkl property is at the center of the least developed area of the Vineyard. In an unprecedented purchase (because of the size), the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission bought 135 acres of land surrounding the property in 1987, protecting the Dunkl land in the process.

From the outside, the Dunkl residence could well be Doctor Dolittle’s summer house. Geese, guinea fowl, hens, and roosters amble around the yard. While we stand at the pond for a moment, a squirrel, a rabbit, several birds, and a goose run or fly in and out of view. “They’re imposters,” says Frank, pointing at several ducks paddling in a pond built by the Dunkls, as a wood louse makes its way up his jacket. The Dunkls built the pond for the birds they keep on the property for eggs, as tick control, and just to have around.

The building they constructed before moving to the Vineyard as a family of five now forms the center of a log cabin. Various small extensions have been added through the years, including the two greenhouses flanking the front of the house. Much of the downstairs is devoted to an open-plan kitchen and living room with dark, hand-hewn wooden paneling, packed bookshelves, several armchairs, and a wood stove in the center. Some Wagner sheet music lies on the bureau at the entrance to the room, which, this afternoon, is made cozy by heat trapped by greenhouse extensions. In various colors, sunlight streams through a stained-glass window at the back of the room. Frank says the bedroom level upstairs is insulated by books, lining every wall.

They haven’t finished much of what they would like to do to the place. “We got sucked into that old Vineyard syndrome of your living in your own way,” says Frank.

Gudrun Dunkl died at home in 2004, at age eighty-nine. Uncle Frank died twenty years earlier, at sixty-four. None of the Dunkl siblings have married or had children – though Heidi, at one time, considered adoption. She decided against it because she felt she worked too hard to give parenting the proper attention and lacked the financial stability she would have wanted. Uncle and mother deeded portions of the property to the siblings periodically, leaving the remainder in their wills.

While he speaks, Frank’s round blue eyes cast about as if he’s searching for a word, but during hours of conversation, there isn’t a significant pause, a repetition, or an incomplete sentence. Engage Frank on a random subject and he will offer you a seamless and exhaustive report, like a walking Reader’s Digest. On a downstairs bookshelf, a thick volume with a blue spine catches the eye: Practical Formulas for Hobby or Profit by Henry Goldschmiedt, PhD.

“Henry’s formulas? That’s all kinds of old-fashioned things: You want to know how to whitewash your walls? It’ll tell you how to mix up a whitewash mix. You want to know how to stain the shingles on your house, it’ll tell you how to fix up the stain. You want to know how to mix up a babbitt alloy to fix up your bearings on an old piece of machinery, it will tell you what tin and lead and antimony you want, depending upon the conditions. All kinds of things like that, oddball things, some of which are just antique curiosities, some of which are very useful. We have another book called Grandma’s Household Hints. These are old-fashioned, antiquated things – some of them work well and some don’t. But it makes good reading and it’s nice knowledge. And it’s part of America’s history.”

He is a natural teacher, but academia never appealed to Frank any more than did a traditional capitalistic lifestyle. And knowledge of his mother’s struggle in the industry as a young graduate worked as a deterrent. “She went looking for work and they said: To be a teacher, you need experience. You need to have worked as a teacher at least one year. How can I work as a teacher if I can’t work as a teacher? They said, not our problem,” Frank says. She had grown up in the States, and the predicament eventually drove her to Europe to find work.

“My brother, my sister, and I didn’t feel like we wanted to become ‘professionals,’” says Frank, standing next to an armchair, though he has been on his feet talking for more than three hours. “I know they told my mother that she should see a psychiatrist for not forcing me to go to college, because my IQ was about 50 percent higher than the average, but I didn’t want to go to school. I got more pleasure out of fixing her alarm clock.

“We want to do stained-glass work, woodwork, with hand tools – that’s in our heritage. Music meant more to us and the enjoyment of music, and study of nature is more interesting to us than materialism. We wanted to do all kinds of creative things. We just felt that way.”

Frank gestures out at the birds making a racket in the driveway.

“If someone were to drive in a brand new Lexus right there and say, ‘Here you go, Frank, here’s the title and the key,’” he says, grinning widely, “it wouldn’t mean as much to me as going out there seeing my geese and see them flap, flap, flap, and go, squawk!”