In the sleepy days of Gilbert, before any strip malls were built or six-lane streets were paved, it was hard to separate the people of the town from the places where they lived and worked.
One of those people was Mae Ong and her place was Liberty Market.
"She was always attached to the store," said June Neely Morrison, a lifelong Gilbert resident. "She was the cashier and you always saw Mae when you went in there."
Ong was born Feb. 14, 1922, 10 years after Arizona became a state. She died just shy of the state's centennial on Jan. 30. She was the sixth of nine children to Ong Shee and Hoo Yuen Leung, Mae's son, Benny Ong, said. Her father owned a fruit farm in Loomis, Calif., where they grew peaches, pears, plums, apricots, figs and grapes. Family lore said her father was also a Buddhist priest.
Mae graduated from high school in 1941 and married her husband, Ben F. Ong, and they moved to Gilbert. There, Ben worked at the Liberty Market as a butcher.
The market had been a staple in the community, having been established in the mid-1930s. It was the location of the first fire to be responded to by the town's first fire truck, an REO Speed Wagon, said Marji Scotten, a board member of the Gilbert Historical Society.
The Ongs bought the market in 1943, a few years after they moved to Gilbert, from Eddie and Edith Dong. They remained the owners until they sold it in 1981.
Gilbert would remain their home for their entire lives as they raised their two children, Joycelyn and Benton (known as Benny).
And while the grocery store was owned by two other families, and was recently converted into a restaurant of the same name, it was the Ong family who owned it the longest.
It was Mae who easily connected with customers and was known for her generosity while Ben was behind the scene as the butcher.
"Friends used to come to the store just to be around her," Mae's son recalled. "She was welcoming to customers with open arms and an open smile."
"People would buy things on credit," Scotten said. "It was basically an honor system and they would pay it when they got paid."
Life in Gilbert could be tough, and Ong always made sure to help her neighbors, her son said.
"Leftover food, when it was about to spoil, she would always give to the homeless and the needy," Benny Ong said.
That sort of attitude is common among people of Mae's generation, Morrison said.
"I'm almost as old as Mae and we saved and reused everything," she said. "We didn't waste the pig's squeal."
When it came to helping people who were down on their luck, Ong opened not only her pantry, but also her home that sat behind the store, her son said.
He and Joycelyn called their house guests "strays," and one such stray was the editor of the Gilbert Enterprise Newspaper, he said.
It was through her connection with the editor that Mae worked for the paper for a few years, taking pictures and writing stories, Benny said.
Somehow, the Ongs' store survived, despite having many grocery stores open at the same time, including the Central Market right next door, Scotten said.
During World War II, besides Liberty and Central Markets, Gilbert also boasted Sam Lee's United Grocer and Page Groceries, according to records at the Gilbert Historical Museum.
The Ongs decided to remodel the grocery store and it nearly doubled in size in 1957, their son said.
Its storefront doesn't match the front of many of the others that line Gilbert Road. This was part of Mae's design, Morrison said. While others wanted to replicate the old Western storefronts like Scottsdale, the Ongs envisioned a modern look.
During the remodel, Mae designed the neon sign, Benny said. She added a star above the "i" in Liberty to the now well-known sign that still sits above the market today.
Mae Ong was preceded in death by her husband, who passed away in 2006.
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