Originally called Mount Yonah when the area was still a part of Habersham County, Cleveland was in the center of the gold-mining territory. The town served as a crossroads that connected the rough roads and mountain trails leading east to Clarkesville, southwest to Dahlonega, south to Gainesville, and northeast to Nacoochee.
In 1870 the name of the town was changed to Cleveland. The state representative William Shelton proposed that the county seat be named Cleveland in honor of his friend, General Benjamin Cleveland, a prominent citizen of Habersham County. A man of great wealth with large land holdings, Cleveland had had a distinguished military career in the Georgia militia from 1820 to 1826, before serving six terms in the Georgia senate.
For years Cleveland was the only chartered town in White County. It was principally an agrarian community during the first half of the twentieth century, but with electrification in the 1930s and 1940s, Cleveland became the center for much of the county’s business activity. Cleveland is the home of Babyland General Hospital, the “birthplace” of the Cabbage Patch Kid dolls that became a phenomenon during the 1980s. Truett-McConnell University, a private four-year Baptist institution, is one of the largest employers in the area, along with FNGP Manufacturing, Ingles Markets, Mt. Vernon Mills, and Peachtree Healthcare Systems. There are two retirement homes, Magnolia Place and Mountain View Personal Care, in the community. Appliance stores and car dealerships add to the growing business sector, and more than 225 business licenses are issued in Cleveland each year.
The Old White County Courthouse, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and now the home of the White County Historical Society, sits in the middle of the town square and remains Cleveland’s focal point. The White County Jail (added to the National Register in 1985) has been renovated and now serves as the home for the chamber of commerce and as a welcome center. Additionally, as a nod to its past, Cleveland citizens and visitors still pan for gold. Nearby waterfalls and hiking trails attract many Georgians to Cleveland and its environs.
According to the 2010 U.S. census, the population was 3,410, an increase from the 2000 population of 1,907.