Updated 1/12, 7:49pm
It was appropriate that the Dunkls happened to be baking gingerbread when I visited on a balmy morning a month ago. The house they share off Old Farm Road in Chilmark — situated in the woods, with a slate roof and diamond-shaped panes of glass — looks like one Johanna Spyri might’ve had in mind when she wrote “Heidi” in the 1880s. A chorus of chickens and guinea fowl greeted me as I arrived.
Inside the house, the dark timbers, installed by the Dunkls themselves, form a crisscross of support, and a set of rustic stairs made of Island wood lead to a second floor. The house is filled with furniture, some from their maternal grandmother’s first house in New York, and other pieces collected over the years from the Chilmark dump. There’s a practical wood and coal-burning stove; you just know, looking around, the Dunkls like to do things themselves. “We dug our own well, our own septic system,” Frank, the spokesperson in the family, says. “We built the whole thing, from the foundation to the lightning rod on the roof.”
Being self-sufficient runs in the Dunkl family. Their mother, Gudrun Daub Dunkl, brought the three of them from Europe to her parents’ home in New Rochelle in 1946. She was a graduate of both Hunter College and Columbia University, but couldn’t find a job in the U.S. during the Depression. Instead, Frank says, she went to Europe, where she taught English to the children of aristocratic families. She met a young medical student, Heinz Dunkl, fell in love, married, and started a family. The war came along and destroyed their future prospects. “Our father got stuck in the German army against his will,” Frank says. “It ruined him and the marriage.” Gudrun moved back to the United States on her own, without her husband.
When they moved to New Rochelle, all three children and their mother were suffering from effects of malnutrition. “We had undersize skeletons and rickets,” Frank says. “We were very sick, but our mother knew if she brought us to her father and mother’s home [in New Rochelle] where she grew up, we’d have good food and whatever we needed.”
The Dunkls’ family history with the Vineyard goes back to their grandmother, who had studied to be an opera singer. Her instructor in New York used to bring students to Edgartown in the summer, and she fell in love with the Island when she first visited in the early 1900s.
When the Dunkl siblings first came to the Island in the 1960s, Frank said they could see why their grandmother felt that way. It took awhile before the family would scrape together the $6,500 they needed to purchase the Chilmark homestead. (The 23-acre parcel was sold to Island Grown Initiative in 2013, with the Dunkls retaining use of the property for the remainder of their lives.)
Frank explained that New Rochelle was growing more and more commercial, and the family — made up by then of their mother and her brother Frank Daub Jr., along with the three siblings — looked up and down the Eastern Seaboard for a place to build a new home.
“To get to Martha’s Vineyard from New Rochelle,” Peter adds, “you could take the train right to Woods Hole in those days.”
They were finally able to move to the Vineyard full-time in the 1970s, bringing their old-time ingenuity with them.
The Dunkls — Peter now 73, Frank, 72, and Heidi, 77 — come by their enterprising ways naturally. Their grandmother was an organic farmer long before it became popular, and all three follow a vegetarian regimen they began years ago. Their mother struggled with arthritis when she returned to the States, Frank explains, until she cured it herself by changing her diet. They could hardly eat steaks while their mother was left with a plate full of vegetables, Frank says.
When they first arrived in New Rochelle, it was decided that their uncle would help raise the children so their mother could get back to work.
“Our uncle was quite resourceful,” Frank says. “He taught us how to swim from a 14-foot inboard boat. He tied a rope around us and said, ‘Swim, you little bugger, and if you don’t, I’ll haul you in like a fish.’ We learned to swim in a hurry.”
Heidi says that they all used to swim at Gay Head on the south beach when they were younger; heavy surf and rip tides kept them from swimming at other Island beaches. When they reminisce about the old days, they start sharing memories of the Vineyard, and all three agree that folks were more resourceful back then.
“Have you heard of Ernest Duarte?” Peter asks. “He was a house mover. He could move a house with chimneys attached and the dishes in the cabinets, and never break a thing. We had some very talented people on this Island.”
The Dunkls don’t give any indication that they might be among those highly regarded craftspeople and legendary Islanders they speak of, even though last November the Dunkl siblings won the Creative Living Award from the Permanent Endowment of Martha’s Vineyard. The name of the award couldn’t ring more true for these Chilmark siblings.
In their lifetime, the brothers have taken houses and commercial buildings apart board by board, saving and restoring every last scrap and repurposing everything down to the nails, and Heidi has always kept the books in the family. The siblings restored antique paintings and the Flying Horses, and they’ve dried their own fruit, canned vegetables grown on their property, and preserved acres of wetlands and their way of life. They’ve worked with Community Services, teaching young people practical skills like how to fix a lamp or install a toilet. Peter and Frank are accomplished musicians — their great-grandfather, Johann Chlupsa, was a violinist with the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. The brothers both play in the Vineyard Haven Band and the Classic Brass ensemble on-Island. All three siblings were trained as commercial artists.
“Five days a week for three hours,” Frank says. “Our teacher was a lifelong buddy of Norman Rockwell’s, Walter Beach Humphrey. He was a small man, very modest and very talented.”
They’ve chopped and donated firewood for neighbors in need, and used their considerable woodworking skills on the properties of those who will likely never want for material things.
“Our uncle taught us that most of society’s norms are wrong most of the time,” Frank explains. “Because most people feel more comfortable running with the pack. We learned at an early age that we live in a world that is rife with wrongs; people getting credit who don’t deserve it and those who do, don’t get it. You can’t change society, the only thing you can do is go out of your way to avoid hurting anyone else.”
The Dunkls’ simple way of living, using only what they need and preserving whatever they can, feels more relevant these days than ever. Thomas Bena, founder of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival and producer of the film “One Big Home,” which features the Dunkls, said the MVFF is planning to make a short film about the siblings, with shooting, editing, and directing headed up by Danielle Mulcahy and Brian Ditchfield.
Bena’s a Chilmark neighbor, and said during his travels over the past 18 months in promoting his documentary, he’s seen audiences gravitate to the Dunkls as they watch “One Big Home.”
“They have a lot of wisdom to pass on,” Bena said of the Dunkls. “Everything in their house has a history and a story. I’m not sure what I’d do with the film; we don’t know what we’ll end up with. Many year-rounders know and love them, but we could do a short profile that introduces people to them.”
Bena and his wife Molly and 9-year-old daughter Emma visited with the Dunkls over the holidays, and Bena said Emma couldn’t have spoken more than 10 words while the Dunkls showed her how they put together one of those gingerbread houses they’re known for making. They use an old rolling pin that belonged to their grandmother on the dough, its wooden cylinder decorated with intricate cutouts. Frank and Peter made the tin molds that form the slightly curved roofs of the brown gingerbread houses. The windows are made of tissue paper, the only part of the house children aren’t able to eat.
As for the documentary, Frank Dunkl says they’ll do it, but only if it does something good for the Island community. “I’m not exactly sure what the purpose is,” Frank says. “If it’s not a vanity thing, we’ll cooperate. We don’t care for vanity. If it serves a beneficial purpose, we’ll devote ourselves to it.”