George Shima

The Well-known “Potato King” and Japanese Leader

In the 1920s, Shima had to dismantle his farming empire due to the Alien Land Laws. He then became a leader in the fight against these laws. He was President of the national Japanese Association of America from 1908 through 1925, the most important leader for Japanese in the United States.

Banquet on Bacon Island, George Shima at far right, 1915. Photo: San Joaquin County Historical Museum

Japanese immigrant Ushijima Kinji (1864-1926), later known as George Shima, arrived in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in 1889 and worked his way from migrant laborer to a top farmer. Shima’s innovative farming techniques produced top quality potatoes, which brought a premium price on the market. The peat soil of the Delta was ideal for growing smooth-skinned, high-quality potatoes, and Shima perfected the sub-irrigation of the crop using narrow trenches or “spud ditches” for every 30 rows of potato plants and he “branded” his quality potatoes by using distinctive bags.

George Shima supervising the planting of potatoes, ca 1913. Photo: San Joaquin County Historical Museum

Shima was a moderately-successful potato farmer in the early 1900s, when he struck up an important friendship with Lee Allen Phillips, a Los Angeles attorney, financier, and Delta reclamation agent.

He and Lee Phillips…had a lot of confidence in each other. Phillips recognized Shima as the producer, the man who could grow things. Shima saw in Phillips the man who made the big deals in land, who got the backing…. [They] had a unique arrangement. Just two men, in mutual confidence, risking hundreds of thousands of dollars on the other fellow’s honesty and reliability—Phillips, the dreamer, and Shima, the man who made a lot of dreams come true.” (J.C. McCarthy, former superintendent of operations for Lee Phillips, Stockton Record)

Phillips would purchase Delta land, arrange for construction of levees to reclaim a tract or island, then lease the land to Shima, who moved in crews of Asian workers to clear the tules and plant an initial grain crop. After that initial crop, potatoes were planted. Shima leased as many as 14,000 acres from Phillips.

George Shima (r) and perhaps Lee Allen Phillips (l), ca 1920. Photo: San Joaquin County Historical Museum

By 1906, Shima was growing more potatoes than any other farmer in the world. He produced 85 per cent of the state’s potato crop, and his “Shima Fancy” potatoes were valued at more than $18 million (more than $200 million in today’s dollars). He became famous nationally when the Stockton Record published a widely-reprinted story on “The Potato King.” 

Shima had three riverboats built in Stockton to transport his potatoes to the Bay Area for wholesale distribution and his lavish yearly entertainments for bankers, produce merchants, and journalists became legendary. He, Lee Phillips, and other capitalists financed the construction of the Stockton Hotel, the luxury hotel that still stands in downtown Stockton.

Shima’s boats off Bouldin Island. Photo: San Joaquin County Historical Museum
Shima’s Barge, Kongo, loaded with potatoes. Photo: San Joaquin County Historical Museum

Shima first purchased—rather than leased—Delta farmland in 1910: 800 acres just north of the potato farm of the Chinese “potato king” Chin Lung (whose story is coming in a subsequent issue of SoundingsMag) on what is now known as the Shima Tract. A year later he bought 800 acres on McDonald Island west of Stockton. His success as the first Japanese American millionaire, his visibility as a result of the Record article, and these land purchases apparently contributed to the statewide agitation for the Alien Land Law that a couple years later forbid Japanese to purchase land and severely restricted land leasing. 

Shima was a major stockholder in California Delta Farms, formed in 1912 by Lee Phillips through the merger of six Delta land companies. California Delta Farms owned 37,400 acres of Delta farmland.

In the 1920s, Shima had to dismantle his farming empire due to the Alien Land Laws. He then became a leader in the fight against these laws. He was President of the national Japanese Association of America from 1908 through 1925, the most important leader for Japanese in the United States.

Shima also left a legacy of supporting students attending the University of California and Stanford University. He is memorialized by the Shima Center at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton. 

Caricature of George Shima, ca 1910. Photo: San Joaquin County Historical Museum

The San Joaquin County Historical Museum in Micke Grove Park has included George Shima’s story in an exhibit panel on the Delta Water Path exterior exhibition.

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  • I spent my childhood on shima tract an have often wondered the history of that island …it is smaller now due to the building of l-5 .. it has a very peaceful feel to it as i still walk the levee there the packing sheds are gone as are the labor camps the orchards an alfalfa fields have replaced the sugar beet ..tomato..asparagus fields .. housing has replaced the pastures where beef were raised ….just a few of my thoughts … excellent article..thank you !!!

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