Friedman’s story began in April 1857 when he was born in Louisville, Kentucky, to Leopold and Louise (Weil) Friedman, accounted as pioneers in Kentucky. He was educated in the public elementary schools of his home town and, because his family was reasonably affluent, was able to attend Cecilian College, a secondary school that had been founded in 1860 by three brothers. After working in local stores as a clerk, Friedman became a traveling liquor salesman for the Bernheim Brothers in Louisville and was accounted a star.
During a subsequent move to Paducah apparently to go into business on his own, Friedman is said to have persuaded his father to relocate there and to finance and help him manage a company to produce and sell vinegar. After his father’s death in 1886, he began to seek a buyer for the vinegar business and sold it 1890 -- “advantageously,” according to a biographer. In 1886, Friedman found time to marry. His bride was Elizabeth Keiler, born in Kentucky in 1861. She has been described as “a lady of rare accomplishments” and a gracious hostess. She and Joseph would be married for 22 years but without children.
Elizabeth’s brother, John W. Keiler, had already established a whiskey dealership in Paducah and circa 1891, Friedman partnered with him in a firm called Friedman, Keiler & Company. It was located initially at 124 North Second Street. Although their letterhead accounts them as “distillers,” the partners principally were “rectifiers,” blending and mixing whiskeys drawn from several Kentucky distilleries. For a time the partners apparently had a financial interest in a distillery located on the Dix River at Lancaster, Kentucky, being operated as the Pilgrimage Distilling Company. At the time this facility was mashing approximately 100 bushels a day and had a storage capacity for about 10.000 barrels. Federal records show the owner withdrawing spirits from the warehouse on behalf of Friedman, Keiler Co. in 1898 and 1901.
Like many rectifiers Friedman and Keiler featured multiple brands, including: "Crescent Club,” "Crider Club,” "E. O. S.,” "Hal Walters,” "J. W. Palmer,” "James E. Owen,” "King Leo,” "Moss Rose High Grade Rye,” "Newport E. O. S,” "Samuel McClure,” "Sweet Revenge,” "The Prophet,” "Tom Manning,” and "Victoria Rye." The company packaged these liquors in both glass and ceramic bottles. As shown here are containers for King Leo and Crescent Club, one bearing a colorful label, the other a striking underglaze design.
Far and away the flagship brand of Friedman, Keiler & Co. was “Brook Hill” whiskey. The company advertised it widely. Shown here is a flask with the typical black label for the brand. At right is another Brook Hill bottle, perhaps one of the most unusual spirits containers to be found. Measuring about 9.5 inches high, the neck protrudes from a metal outer body, two sides of which have hand-etched designs. One says “Brook Hill” and the other is a detailed drawing of a baseball player.
Unusual containers were a trademark of Friedman, Keiler & Co. and Brook Hill. Perhaps the outstanding example, and one of the most highly sought American whiskey ceramics was the the firm’s back of the bar whiskey decanter. Likely made for the company in Germany, the jug was highly decorated with race horses, sea shells and other do-dads and through a spigot at the base (corked here), it dispensed whiskey to the bartender. This was not the only gift to be presented to favored customers, saloons and restaurants carrying Friedman, Keiler products. Another was a sign color lithographed on tin showing a black and white hunting dog peering through a hole in a fence. Meant for the wall of a drinking establishment, it was entitled, “The Brook Hill Dog.” Other examples of the liquor dealers’ largesse were shot glasses and mini jugs advertising the flagship whiskey. Those might have been given to retail as well as to wholesale customers.
About his liquor firm, Friedman’s obituary had this to say: "From the first it was a success, and the business has grown rapidly and steadily. Now the company occupies a handsome building at First and Jefferson streets and it is considered the most prosperous in the state." Joseph was accounted the wealthiest man in Paducah and among the richest in Kentucky. His net worth at his death was accounted at (in current $$) between $20 and $24 million.
If Friedman had been only a whiskey merchant, however, he would not have merited the blaring headline in the Paducah newspaper. His involvement in the commercial life of his home town was intense. He was a moving force for the development of the Paducah Traction Company, bringing street cars to the city, and subsequently its president. Friedman also served as president of the company that built and owned the Palmer House hotel, shown here. He is credited with building the Kentucky Theater. He was vice-president and director of the City National bank, and a director of the Paducah water company. Friedman also had a financial interested in the Smith & Scott Tobacco Company, and Lax-Fos, a patent medicine firm. He also owned considerable Paducah real estate.
The Paducah News Democrat told its readers: "Joseph L. Friedman probably was interested in more enterprises in Paducah than any other man. There have been but few projects of consequence launched in Paducah in the last 20 years that he has not been one of the moving spirits in his untiring energy, combined with his keen foresight and his faith in the bright future of the city, is attested by the great success of all the institutions in which he was most interested."
Friedman also was active in Paducah’s community life. He was a thirty-second degree Mason, a member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, Knights of Pythias, and the Knights of Honor. He appears to have been active in all these groups. In politics, Friedman was accounted a Democrat but he never sought political office preferring to make his career in business. Recognizing his Jewish heritage, he was an active member of Paducah’s Temple Israel and of B’nai B’rith.
Friedman’s charitable work was legendary. It was said that whenever a petition for funds was circulated, he frequently headed the list with a liberal donation and that he had a reputation for assisting all the charitable institutions in Paducah. His dedication to his city is indicated by the following story: During one Ohio River flood of the city, likely 1884, Friedman was out of town. He reached Paducah on the last train that arrived. Without a moment's hesitation, it was said, he assisted the rescue work. Not only did he contribute financial aid to the relief fund which was dispensed through the local flood committee, but he made many purchases of supplies for suffering families. Insisting as well that he wanted to do the actual relief work he donned a pair of hip boots and waded into the water with flood workers bringing relief to stricken families.
After his wife died in 1908, Friedman frequently went to his Northern Michigan summer home, accompanied by a relative. His nephew was with him in July of 1913 as they made the trip from Paducah. While stopping off in Chicago, Friedman, only 56 years old, suddenly was beset with kidney failure, diagnosed at the time as Bright’s Disease. With his nephew by his side, Friedman died in a hotel room. His body quickly was shipped back to Paducah for burial. His funeral procession was three miles long and involved hundreds of vehicles as thousands mourned the loss of this dynamic Paducah businessman. Joseph was buried next to Elizabeth in the imposing Friedman-Keiler mausoleum in Temple Israel Cemetery near Lone Oak, Kentucky.
A tribute written about Joseph Friedman during his lifetime in 1904 book entitled “Memorial Record of Western Kentucky,” provides additional evidence of why Joseph Friedman’s death garnered so a large headline in his local newspaper: “Such a personage as Mr. Friedman is a distinct ornament to the community, one of the pillars which uphold the structure of society and give it stability. Honesty and integrity in business and personal life, loyalty to friends, free handed generosity and kind heartedness in his dealings with all, are characteristics which increase his esteem among men and widen his beneficent influence with each succeeding year of life.” And, in the end, served him handsomely in death.