When the idea of constructing a Baha’i Temple in America was first proposed in 1903 there were very few Baha’is in the United States and Canada. By 1906 it is estimated that Baha’is resided in approximately 150 cities and that there were twenty-seven Spiritual Assemblies, including one in Honolulu and one in Montreal, Canada.
In preparation for this major undertaking, the Baha’is in various cities began holding meetings to increase support for the Temple, and several communities formed local treasuries to gather money for the project. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá continued to send letters of encouragement, expressing His wish for the friends to be united and supportive of this undertaking.
One Baha'i who made a unique contribution to the Temple project in 1908 was Esther Tobin, known to her friends as Nettie. She was a loving, humble woman who earned a meager living as a seamstress. After her husband's death in Detroit in 1892, she moved to Chicago with her two small sons, brother, and half-sister. Yet once there she could barely support her children; oftentimes she would buy groceries for the evening meal with money she earned during the same day. She had not attended school, which may account for her peculiar habit of using words out of context, a trait that often sent herself and her friends into fits of laughter. Paul Dealy, an early Baha'i, invited her to several Baha'i meetings, including those at the True home. It was in that home that she became a Baha'i, probably in 1903. Shortly thereafter, she was employed by Corinne True as a dressmaker and visited the True home one or two days each week.
Although Nettie Tobin worked actively as a member of the Women's Assembly of Teaching, she was troubled by her financial inability to contribute to the building of the Temple. After praying often that God send her something to offer as a gift, she reportedly heard a voice on several occasions that told her to find a stone. This is what she told her nurse Gertrude Triebwasser three and a half years before her passing:
One day while sitting alone and busy with dressmaking in the home of one of the believers, I heard a voice questioning, “Do you believe in immortality?" I replied, “Yes, I do." The voice said, “Then, get a stone." A few days later the voice again came, but louder than before, "Do you believe in immortality?" Again I replied, "Yes, I do." And the voice said, “Get a stone." I delayed carrying out the request. Again the voice came a third time and commanded me to obtain a stone.
Nettie also told her nurse that when 'Abdu'l-Baha arrived in Chicago she presented Him with a bouquet of white roses and some grapefruit. He requested one of His attendants to save the seed from the latter to be planted at His home in Haifa. She also contributed for the Shrine of the Báb on Mt. Carmel. 'Abdu'l-Baha promised that Mrs. Tobin, with her whole family would be blessed.
Nettie’s inspiration most likely came from a letter written in June 1908 to the American Baha'is by Mirza Asadu'llah, a Persian Baha'i travel teacher who had apparently proposed the project to the Chicago Spirituality Assembly in 1903. In the letter Mirza Asadu'llah had written: "Now is the time for expending energy and power in the erection of the edifice, be it a mere stone, laid in the name of the Baha’i Mashrak-el-Azkar. For the glory and honor of the first stone is equivalent to all the stones and implements which will later be used there."
Perhaps partly due to this letter and partly due to her own inspirational experiences Nettie began looking around and found a construction site near her home, just north of downtown Chicago. She sought out the project's foreman, told him about the Baha’i Temple project, and asked if he could offer her an inexpensive building stone. The foreman, enchanted with Nettie’s request, showed her a small pile of limestone rocks, damaged and unfit for use, and invited her to take one.
Later that day Nettie with help from her neighbor wrapped one of the stones in a piece of carpet, tied clothesline around it, and dragged the bundle home. Two days later on Labor Day 1908 Nettie arranged with Cecilia Harrison and Corinne True to bring the stone to Grosse Pointe, on the north side of the city. She sought assistance from her brother Leo Leadroot and Mirza Mazlum, an elderly Persian friend.
On their way to their destination point, the threesome had difficulty convincing the conductor of the State Street horsecar to allow the stone on board. Yet Nettie insisted, he gave in, and they placed the stone, still tied in the carpet, on the back platform. After traveling through Chicago to the north side of the city, they transferred to another car and rode to the corner of Central and Ridge avenues in Evanston, probably the station closest to the Temple site at that time. Because they were still six blocks away from the site, the stone would have to be carried the rest of the way by hand. But once they had gone about three blocks, the stone became too heavy to carry any farther, and they began dragging it along the ground. The trip took much longer than Nettie Tobin had anticipated.
In the meantime, Corinne True and Cecilia Harrison, who had been waiting at the site, became worried and started back toward the station. They soon came upon Mrs. Tobin's group. At this point Mirza Mazlum, apparently inspired by photographs showing young men carrying stones from the quarry at Ashkhabad for the Baha'i Temple there, begged his companions to place the stone on his back. He managed to progress another half block to an old, unoccupied farmhouse, where they left the stone in the yard overnight.
Very early the next morning Nettie returned alone to the farmhouse with a homemade cart and a fire shovel. When she tried to lift the stone into the cart, she broke the cart's handle and, in so doing, injured her wrist. A man nearby, responding to her difficulties, helped her to replace the stone in the cart and fixed the handle for her. After resuming her trek for a half block, she enlisted the aid of a newsboy, who helped her reach the west corner of the land. As they dragged the cart across the two lots, it fell apart, leaving the stone sitting amidst the rubble. Her deed accomplished, Nettie said some prayers and left for home.
In the months ahead the stone provided a focal point for Baha'i gatherings. Although ‘Abdu'l-Baha had already sent a stone marker for the Temple site -- one possibly of the same material as the Bab's marble sarcophagus, a gift of the Baha'is of Rangoon, Burma, but it didn’t reach the Temple grounds. Nor were reached other stones reportedly sent by Baha'is from various parts of the world. So, on the first day of May 1912 when ‘Abdu’l-Baha broke the ground, only Nettie Tobin’s contribution of the “stone which the builders refused” would be available to serve as the marker dedicated by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. After placing the stone in the hole, the Master pushed the earth around it and declared that ‘The Temple is already built‘.
During the years following that Event and the building of the Temple, the stone was carefully preserved, and finally imbedded in the cement floor of the basement at the spot where 'Abdu'l-Baha dedicated it.
As one visits that sacred place and gazes at the unpolished, rough piece of natural rock and remembers its significance coupled with the greatness of the One Who blessed it by His Word and Presence, one gratefully recalls the faith and effort of the humble soul inspired to bring it there for that unique and remarkable occasion.
(Adapted from ‘The Dawning Place, by Bruce Whitmore; ‘Mrs. Esther Tobin’, by Albert Windust, ‘The Baha’i World 1944-1946’; ‘’Abdu’l-Baha in Their Midst’, by Earl Redman; ‘Corinne True, Faithful Handmaid of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’, by Nathan Rutstein)