The place was known to the Herero under the name Otjivanda. In 1885, 40 Boer families from the north-west of South Africa settled at Grootfontein. Part of the Dorsland trekkers, they were heading towards Angola. When that territory fell under Portuguese control, they turned back and established the Republic of Upingtonia at Grootfontein. Abandoned by 1887, it became the headquarters of the South West Africa Company in 1893.
In 1908 the Roman Catholic church established a mission in Grootfontein as the basis of their eventually successful attempt to establish missions in Kavango.
Like all the towns in the Otavi Triangle, Grootfontein is very green in summer but drier in winter. In spring, jacaranda and flamboyant trees bloom in profusion. The town has an old German Schutztruppe fortress from the year 1896, which today houses a museum that expounds on the local history. The economic mainspring of the area were for many decades the Berg Aukas and Abenab mines to the north east of the town. These produced zinc and vanadium but have since closed. This is dolomite country and the carbonate deposits in the upper parts of the mine have yielded interesting fossils of simian or pongoid creatures that lived millions of years before modern humans evolved.
Twenty four kilometres west of Grootfontein lies the huge Hoba meteorite. At over 60 tons, it is the largest known meteorite on Earth, as well as being the largest naturally occurring mass of iron known to exist on the planet's surface.
Grootfontein is a railhead on TransNamib, the national railway and transport system. The next station to the west is Otavi. Grootfontein is also home of Namibia's main military base which housed several units of the now departed South African Defence Force. It has an airfield that can handle large transport carriers such as the Hercules C130, as well as commercial passenger aircraft.
Grootfontein Show, an annual agricultural exhibition that takes place since 1911, is the second largest annual entrepreneurial exhibition in the country, after Windhoek Show.
The town has four supermarket chains (Spar, WB, Pick n Pay and Ok Foods), and a newly developed mall. Grootfontein is home to Namibia Property Group, a developer of low and middle income housing across the country. NPG is developing Omulunga Extension 5, and has plans to continue growing Grootfontein's inner township.
Several other national businesses are based out of Grootfontein, including Simondeum Fine Meats, a manufacturer of sausage and meat products.
The town has three active Fueling Stations.
Grootfontein is governed by a municipal council that currently has seven seats.
There is another Grootfontein in Hardap province.
Previously the German school Regierungsschule Grootfontein was in the town. In 1965 it had 4 teachers and 117 learners and was supported by German government.
Grootfontein is home to three high schools, Grootfontein Secondary School, Friedrich Awaseb Senior Secondary School, and the Grootfontein Agricultural College.Behati Prinsloo – model, best known for working with Victoria's Secret
Leon Jooste – SWAPO politician and businessman
Hage Geingob – The President of the Republic of Namibia
Lydia Katjita – SWAPO politician and member of the Pan-African Parliament
Hannes Smith – journalist
Inge Zaamwani – businesswoman