Roadside-attraction showdown: Gravenhurst’s Muskoka chair

The story of this oversized attraction starts with a tornado, features a string of bank robberies, and ends at a bar
By Nathaniel Basen - Published on Aug 13, 2021
The chair was completed in April 2010. (Instagram/Sawdust City Beer; Instagram/Gravenhurst Chamber of Commerce)



Maybe you’ve already been to Niagara Falls or up to the top of the CN Tower. But have you made a pit stop near a giant goose? Or snapped a selfie next to a giant wheel of cheese?

Those are just a couple of the roadside attractions on offer in towns and cities across Ontario, which have devised unusual and eye-catching ways of setting their communities apart.

If you’re looking for summertime fun close to home, you can hit the road and check out these local legends. If you’re looking for summertime fun even closer to home, you can check in with over the next two months — each week, we’ll be bringing you profiles of the weirdest, wackiest, and largest objects gracing Ontario’s roadways.

At the end of August, you’ll get the chance to pick your favourites when we open up the voting brackets. So travel Ontario with us, and get ready for a showdown.

Check out the other contestants here.

Around dinner time on August 20, 2009, a tornado tore through Gravenhurst, toppling trees, flinging patio furniture, and ripping the marquee off a local theatre before continuing on its 14-kilometre path. It was one of 19 twisters that hit southern and central Ontario that day. 

While the Gravenhurst storm caused no major injuries, it did result in at least one cultural casualty: a very large Muskoka chair that had lived in front of the Home Hardware was lost to the whipping winds.

The store’s then owner, Rob Clark, saw opportunity in the rubble. “I want the biggest Muskoka chair in the world,” he later told a reporter. “I made a commitment to the mayor … [that] I would replace the chair. If I’m going to replace it, it might as well go bigger.” 

two men standing in front of a giant chair
Rob Clark (left) and Craig Johnson in front of the Muskoka chair. (Courtesy of the Huntsville Forester)

But he needed help. Clark had previously hired Craig Johnson, then an inmate at Beaver Creek Institution, a nearby federal prison, as part of a work-release program. Johnson, who was born in Ottawa but grew up in Burlington, had worked at Dofasco Steel, in Hamilton, before a string of bank robberies first put him behind bars in 1997. (Another series of thefts in 2004 put him back in prison.)

“He knew what my skills were, and he asked me if I could build him the world’s largest Muskoka chair,” Johnson says. “And I said yes.” 

Clark provided a photo of the old chair and said he wanted it nearly six and a half metres tall. Johnson set to work in a nearby warehouse. He was dropped off each weekday at 8 a.m. and then picked up at 4 p.m. and collected minimum wage. 

man in blue shirt sitting in front of flowers
Craig Johnson at Warkworth Institution, in Trent Hills.  (Courtesy of the Correctional Service of Canada)

It was nice, Johnson says, to get away from “the day-to-day rumbles and jumbles that go on within the institution.” 

The chair had to be built in segments; otherwise, it would have been too large for the warehouse. “I had built smaller Muskoka chairs before, so I knew what the scope of it was,” Johnson says. “I made diagrams and then just extended them. But all the angles and everything — it's not linear. So there were some challenges with getting some of the angles right, but it was trial and error.”

It took two months, nearly 245 linear metres of cedar plank, roughly 130 square metres of plywood, and a lot of lemon-yellow paint. “Mr. Clark wanted something that was going to last and wouldn’t be blown away by the wind,” Johnson says. 

a giant yellow chair covered in snow
The chair is nearly six and a half metres tall.(Instagram/gateway2muskoka)

The chair was completed in April 2010. In November, Johnson left the prison on another work-release program and went on the lam. “After that was all over with, I wasn't happy with where I was at,” he says. “So, I went on an [unaccompanied temporary absence], and I never returned. Unfortunately, I ended up getting in some more bank robberies and had quite a few more years added on.”

The chair has since been moved to the parking lot of a local brewery and gained several rivals for the title of world’s largest (including one at the Horseshoe Resort, near Barrie). Sometimes, Johnson reflects on it. “Every once in a while, I hear about it, and I say, ‘Well, you know, I built that,’” he says. “People don’t believe me at first.”

Today, Johnson is in Warkworth Institution, in Trent Hills. His statutory release date is set for February of next year. “I'm glad there's something out there, something good with my name on it. Obviously, you've seen my name in articles in the newspaper or on the internet, as far as the bad things I had done. So, you know, my life hasn't been all bad.”

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