Around the turn of the millennium, an earnest young chef opened an Italian restaurant on the square in Cleveland, in the northeast Georgia mountains.
Under the code of blue laws, Cleveland was “dry,” so he was not allowed to serve alcohol. One customer, though, asked to bring in a bottle of wine to enjoy with some pasta. No problem, said the chef.
Some busybody at a nearby table must have taken note because the following day a letter to the editor appeared in the newspaper referring to the restaurant as a “den of iniquity” and “Sodom and Gomorrah.” The city council convened an “emergency” night-time meeting to outlaw brown-bagging, and the following night the Cleveland police posted an officer outside the restaurant, a sentry with his arms crossed like a martinet from “Cool Hand Luke” to prevent the smuggling of any merlot. The restaurant quickly decamped to friendlier territory.
So Cleveland resumed its role as the solemn, poker-faced little town that people whizzed through to get somewhere else.
“The downtown square was a lonely, quiet place to be,” recalls Billy Chism, the longtime former newspaper editor, whose window had a view of the old, brick courthouse. “Somebody might buy a hammer at Nix hardware, but that was about it. I would sit there and watch the maple leaves turn colors to mark the passage of time.”
Change was inevitable, though. Retirees and newcomers attracted by Cleveland’s scenic natural beauty started settling here, and they wanted their happy hour. The tippling point reached a tipping point.
Someone launched a Facebook page called “Concerned Citizens for Cleveland.” Its cover photo was a picture of the downtown square at 6 p.m. on a Saturday evening. All of the shops were dark, and there was nary a parked car in sight. “What do we do?” it asked.
Transplants wanted booze; homegrown locals envisioned a dystopia of Wild West saloons. Testimonials stretched down the page that read like a transcript from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
The issue was put to a referendum for the umpteenth time in 2011, and finally alcohol sales passed. Since then, Cleveland has become a much different place, a backcountry wallflower blossoming into a mountain-laurel belle.
Start with downtown. Now you can avail yourself of three restaurants, a bakery, four upscale clothing boutiques and four gossipy beauty parlors, along with a retail store for Nora Mill Granary. There’s even a shop called Low Carb Options that specializes in gluten-free fare. A stroll away is Freedom Park, a manicured greenspace that hosts festivals, band concerts and screen-on-the-green movie nights. Visitors can take in a show and then amble over to Clyde’s Table and Tavern for a cocktail. It almost as if Cleveland has a “café society.”
“Clyde’s has really been pivotal in revitalizing downtown,” says Beth Truelove, director of the White County Chamber of Commerce. “I like to think of Main Street as the living room of the house, but what’s the most popular room? The kitchen.”
Clyde’s, which opened in 2018, is named for owner Ward Gann’s beloved bird dog, an English setter. The fixtures are reclaimed wood, and it is decorated with taxidermy and prints of hunting dogs, with a menu geared to the carnivorous — an aesthetic that appeals to the camo-and-Carhartt crowd. But the food is decidedly high-end.
“When I moved here in 1999, I couldn’t believe there was no place for people to eat without beer, wine and spirits,” says Gann in a molasses drawl. “When the law changed, I figured, ‘Somebody’s gotta do it, might as well be me.’”
He has been mobbed every night since then. “It just shows that there was a real need for this,” he says.
The town also is learning how better to showcase its beauty. Formerly its motto was “Gateway to the Mountains.” Now it’s “Where Mother Nature Comes to Play.” Cleveland boasts five wineries, crown jewels in what is becoming known as “Napalachia.”
“Our sandy loam with its red clay is good for growing grapes,” says Bob Miller, owner of Yonah Mountain Vineyards. His products have won 12 medals in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, and he revels in winning over the California wine snobs. “Other states look down their noses at Georgia wines, but once they have ours, they become converts and start buying them by the case.”
All the wineries offer spectacular views and typically provide live music on the weekends. White County also has 37 wedding venues, including Willow Creek, Susan Garrity’s Cleveland sheep farm.
“We are lucky here in our corner of Northeast Georgia because over half of our land is still federal- and state-owned, so we have been able to largely preserve the beauty and remoteness of our quaint little mountain town,” says Garrity. “Modernization has brought us easier access to the forest service lands with well-maintained hiking and mountain biking trails, world class waterfall and mountain hiking paths, and state and federally maintained trout streams, which are regularly stocked and monitored.”
The square is not the only part of the city that has livened up. The GA 75 corridor has given rise to some quirky hangouts, including JumpinGoat Coffee Roasters and Tasting Room, serving wine, fair-trade coffee and locally sourced mead, and Tantrum, a brewery where millennials sip IPAs. There is also a business called Highway to Hell’n, where you can hurl hatchets at targets, next to the brewery — what could go wrong?
The closest thing Cleveland has to a literary salon is Mount Yonah Book Exchange, owned by Ellen Schlossberg and her irascible cat, Daisy. The local cognoscenti gather there and while away Saturday afternoons, reading each other’s writing and picking apart other authors. She does a surprisingly booming business and even has an erotica section.
“I never know what someone will ask for,” Schlossberg says. “Yesterday, an (elderly) man in overalls came in looking for some Tennessee Williams and the ‘Diary of Anne Frank.’”
Next door to the bookstore is Southern Fried Vinyl, which offers thousands of albums.
Of course, for generations now, the face of Cleveland has been endearingly cherubic. The Cabbage Patch Kids were born here, and they were no passing fad. Their birthplace, BabyLand General, still attracts visitors by the busloads. It features a giant Mother Cabbage with an orifice that “dilates eight leaves apart” when she goes into labor and whelps a naked baby.
Full disclosure, I worked there as a candy striper when I was in high school. I was required to wear orthopedic nursing shoes and memorize a tome called “The Legend of the Cabbage Patch.” Slipping up and saying “buy a doll” instead of “adopt a baby” could get you fired.
Nowadays, an additional mythical figure looms over the town.
“There are the Sasquatches,” Truelove says with a grin. “That’s a very Cleveland thing.”
A cult of Bigfoot pervades northeast Georgia, which hosted a conference a few years ago that drew hundreds of true believers who, I think, might have spied my hirsute cousin in the woods. Cleveland has embraced this silliness, though, and set up two selfie stations on the square where you can pose with life-size cutouts of the creature.
Cleveland has one tiny African-American community, at the intersection of Hood Street and Ebony Lane in White County — yes, seriously. Annie Sutton grew up on Hood Street. When she ran for city council 20 years ago, everyone told her not to bother, but she became the city’s first female and first African-American councilperson. Today she is Cleveland’s mayor, and she is overseeing several civic improvement projects, including a new community center with walking trails. Oak Springs School, the segregated academy she attended, is being converted into a police precinct, and it will feature photos and artifacts that celebrate African-American history. It seems like a full-circle moment for her.
“Everybody wants jobs,” Sutton says. “Well, jobs won’t come without amenities. And now we’re getting those. It’s wonderful to see people out with their kids and their dogs walking around the square now.”
“There’s a new energy, a new spirit here,” says Sidney Martin, who recently established Honeypot Sugarbush Fine Florals. “I think we’re poised for greater and greater changes.”
Martin was born in Cleveland but lit out for Atlanta, Boston, L.A. and New York — “sowing my wild oats” — before returning home to put down roots. Now he wants to get involved in local politics and shake things up.
“There were generations that left because there was literally nothing to do,” concedes Truelove. “Our message to them is: Come home. We’ve got plenty for you to do now. This is not the Cleveland you remember.”
If you go
Cleveland is 80 miles northeast of Atlanta via I-85.
BabyLand General Hospital. Watch Mother Cabbage give birth to a Cabbage Patch Kid. Free. 300 N.O.K. Drive. 706-865-2171, www.cabbagepatchkids.com
Yonah Preserve Trails. Multi-use trail system on 1,000 acres perfect for mountain-biking, hiking, dog-walking. Daily. Free. 1054 Albert Reid Road. www.yonahpreservetrails.com
Yonah Mountain Vineyards. Elegant winery with award-winning, cave-aged wines and breathtaking mountain views, often with live music. Free. 1717 Hwy. 255S. 706-878-5522, www.yonahmountainvineyards.com
Where to Stay
Knights Inn. Easy access to downtown Cleveland, with a swimming pool. $70-$75. 244 S. Main St. 706-865-4079
Lucille’s Mountain Top Inn and Spa. Luxury lodge with a panoramic mountain view. $194-$269. 964 Rabun Road, Sautee Nacoochee. 866-245-4777, www.lucillesmountaintopinn.com
Where to Eat
Clyde’s Table and Tavern. Hearty surf-and-turf, heavy on the brisket and macaroni. $8-$28. 5 E. Jarrard St. 706-607-8707, www.clydestableandtavern.com
The Soda Fountain Café. Nostalgic burger joint where the servers wear tees that say “Abs are great, but have you tried milkshakes?” $10-$15. 19 E. Jarrard St. 706-865-5588.
White County Chamber of Commerce. 122 N. Main St. 706-865-5356, www.whitecountychamber.org
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