The History of Grootfontein 1781 – 2005

The history of Grootfontein dates back to 1781 when a certain Hendrik van der Walt made his living as a loan farmer on the then modest property, Grootfontein, situated just north of Middelburg Eastern Cape.  The farm Grootfontein was originally divided into two sections, with a dry river bed as the only separation.   The first owners were Tjaart Hendrik Jacobus van der Walt and Nicolaas van der Walt.

Under the successive ownership of the Van der Walt, Vorster and Du Plessis families, Grootfontein gradually grew to its present size of 11 418 hectares.   The farm’s last private owners were Jan and Nicolaas van der Walt and their sister Lucia, married to Schalk Willem Vorster.   Both sections of the farm were sold to the “Imperial government in 1903 and 1904, respectively.   The second section was sold for £5.2s. 6d/ha, the total sales price of the farm being £47 000.   After it was sold to the Imperial government, it was use as a military camp.  Peculiar to those bitter years after the Anglo-Boer War, the family cemetery was retained and not sold to the Imperial Government.     Tradition has it that the one portion of Grootfontein would never have been sold, was it not for the intolerable nuisance the “Tommies” made of themselves with their predilection for petty theft.

This was the dawn of Grootfontein’s military era.   Twelve to fifteen thousand British soldiers were encamped over a vast area of Grootfontein farmland skirting the town.   This military presence served as a peace-keeping force outside the Boer Republics after the Anglo Boer War.

During this time the “Tommie’s” planted thousands of Eucalyptus trees, of which the greater majority are still to be seen lining Grootfontein  roadways and clustered in the veld where military buildings were once situated.

The impact of 2 000 cavalry horses which grazed on the surrounding veld can still be seen today in the preponderance of kapokbush (Eriocephalus ericoides), in many of the grazing camps.

The effect of the military camp on the town of Middelburg, and its economy was far-reaching.

Finally, in 1910, the last troops were withdrawn from Grootfontein and the farm was taken over by the Union Government with a view to founding a School of Agriculture – an idea inspired by F S Malan, the last Minister of Agriculture of the Cape colony before Union.   During July of the same year a talented young man named Russell Thornton was appointed first principal and was instructed to get the envisaged agricultural school off the ground.

To write a complete history of Grootfontein would demand many written volumes.   Suffice it to provide an outline of the main events and important milestones in the development of the College.



British Department of War bought farms in Middelburg district which were consolidated under the name of Grootfontein.  During this military period which terminated in 1910 between 12 000 and 15 000 British soldiers were stationed at Grootfontein.


The foundation of the Grootfontein College of Agriculture dates back to the year after Union.   The farm Grootfontein was transferred to the Union Government by the Imperial Government in 1911 and an agricultural school was started in the same year.   The total size of the ground 11 418 ha.


Grootfontein School of Agriculture founded.  

First principal: R W Thornton: July 1910 – October 1923.    He was appointed as the first principal of the still to be founded Agricultural School in 1910, at the age of 28.  His first job was to value the houses and other equipment of the military farm for transfer to the Union Government.   Thornton personally let it be known that he had valued the houses and equipment at one-tenth of their market value and that the Imperial Government had accepted his valuation.   He was then immediately sent to Britain to study agricultural training and “also to select several highly qualified men for the college staff”.  

First student intake 42 and staff 21.

Hansie Duvenhage was the first student at the College and he and a friend of his arrived in Middelburg on 3 February 1911. 


Woolled sheep most important small stock breed.  

In 1912 General Louis Botha, Prime Minister and also Minister of Agriculture, instructed Mr Thornton to visit North Africa.  Thornton was sent to obtain ostriches with a particular feather pattern.  The trip was later known as the “Ostrich Expedition”.   Ostrich breeding was the most important research facet, but disappeared by 1916.


A special dairy factory course was introduced in 1913 with 10 students, the maximum that could be taken. 

June 1913 the first short course of 3 weeks duration was held, 30 men and women were enrolled.  This was a course in Home Economics (Domestic Science).

1914 – 1918

In 1914 the money for a new hostel was actually voted.  World War I.  Activities in Region virtually come to a stand-still.


On instruction from the Prime Minister, General Botha, a hostel was erected in a few weeks, as an urgent work to accommodate young returned soldiers...  A year’s course was instituted and the building, later used as an office block, was immediately filled to capacity with young returned soldiers.


Special six month Sheep and Wool course launched, later extended to nine months.

Combined with diploma Course in 1930.


Grootfontein instrumental in founding of Wool Growers’ Association (popularly known as WGA).  Merino, German Merino, Karakul and Percheron studs established. 

Pasture research begins.


Wool research begins.


M J Joubert (from Glen School of Agriculture) appointed as Principal:  January 1924 – May 1929.


Drought Fodder Crop research begins.   First Oldman saltbush and spineless cactus planted.


During this year portions of the farm which could not be utilized, was sold to adjacent farmers.


E Parish appointed as Principal   :  September 1929 – March 1934.


Animal physiology research begins.


Electricity was installed at Grootfontein.


Dorper development programme begins.


H W Turpin appointed as Principal:   March 1934 – September 1934. 

Special eight month Sheep breeding and Wool technology Course commences.  Terminates 1942.   

First proper veld grazing experiments begin.

G J Schuurman appointed as Principal  : September 1934 – June 1949


Grootfontein gains College status.

The Vlekpoort grounds (16 029 ha) in the Tarka Conservation Area, near Hofmeyr, come into possession of State and are controlled by Grootfontein.

1939 – 1945

World War II.

Activities continue, but are seriously inhibited.


Rugby pavilion was completed, supported by Student and Personnel funds.

Sheep and Wool building was erected  (donated to the College  by the Wool Board)


Sheep and Wool Research Building opened.


Three month Sheep and Wool Course commences.  Terminated 1974.


Soil Conservation Act comes into force.   Dorper development programme finalized at Grootfontein.


Wool Shed burnt down.


L L Roux appointed as Director: June 1949 – February 1952.

New hostel Bergsig for 115 students opened.

Four tennis courts were built.


First proper rotational grazing systems drawn up.   Dorper Breeders’ Society established.   Inception of Grootfontein Old Students’ Union (by 2001 membership reaches 1 443).  Karoo Region and Eastern Cape Region become separate regions.   Karoo Region divided into 4 sub regions.   Merino, Dorper and Angora goat most important small stock breeds.   Karakul, Percherons, poultry and pigs transferred to other Regions.   Wool Boom in full swing.   Student numbers rise to 250.   Old facilities (Officer’s Mess – now House Karoo) opened again to accommodate increased numbers.


J A van Rensburg appointed as Director   :  February 1952 – February 1959.


Tennis Club House was completed, supported by Personnel funds.


Junior Students: 64.   Senior Students:  51.    48 Applications were not accepted


Sheep and Wool Training Centre and modern lecture theatre opened.


First formal registration of research projects.   Four sub-regions officially launched.


C M van Wyk appointed as Director:  March 1959 – June 1970.


19 February 1961 – the “Fonteine Rugby Club” (Personnel Rugby Club) were founded.  First personnel rugby club of an Agricultural College in South Africa. 37 members.


Golf Club House was completed, supported by Personnel funds.


The following animals were kept to produce products for research, training as well as the two student hostels:  4 500 - 5 000 Merino sheep, 350 Dorper sheep, 300 Karakul sheep, 200 Angora goats, 90 Holstein cows, 160 registered Jersey cows, 50 oxen, 70 horses and mules and approximately 2 000 poultry.


Carnarvon Experimental Station (11 088 ha) founded for veld, drought fodder crop and sheep breeding research.


Orange-Fish River Irrigation Project launched.   First water received in Fish River Valley 1971.   Development of a white woolled mutton sheep breed, the Afrino, begins at Carnarvon Experimental Station.   Group Camp System of grazing veld designed for Karoo Region.


W J Hugo appointed as Director:  1 July 1970 – 31 December 1977.


Cradock Experimental Plot (719 ha) in the Fish River Valley acquired for crop and animal production research.


First full Regional Development Programme drawn up.


Angora Goat Experimental Station (2 128 ha) at Jansenville acquired for Angora goat research.


P W Roux appointed as Director: 1 January 1978 - October 1987.


Afrino Breeders’ Society established.   Grootfontein Merino Stud ram fetches S A record price of R18 000.  Two-year agricultural diploma course standardized for all S A Colleges.  Launching of research programme on Merino sheep under intensive conditions at Cradock Experimental Plot.


New Research and Administration Building opened at Grootfontein.   Modern abattoir opened.   Rationalization plan initiated within Department, Training of students, Research and Extension placed on equal footing.   Agricultural Resource classification of Region begins. 


Five-year Agricultural development Programme for the Karoo Region drawn up.   Student numbers stabilize at 100.


Inception of the Division of Agricultural Resource Development.


Re-establishment of animal research in the Tarka Conservation Area.   Five year Agricultural Development Programme for the Karoo Region is drawn up.   Launching of the National Grazing Strategy by Minister of Agriculture.


House Karoo (Officer’s Mess) was renovated with personnel funds.


Establishment of the Division of Engineering and Water Supply at Grootfontein.  Grootfontein dairy herd becomes redundant.  75th Jubilee of the Grootfontein College of Agriculture.


House Karoo (Officer’s Mess) was declared a National Heritage site.


H S Hofmeyr is appointed as Director: 1 January 1988 – 28 February 1990.   Boskop Training Centre and Rural Foundation open offices at Grootfontein.


H Steynberg appointed as Director: 1 March 1990 – 31 march 1996.


Agricultural Research Council was founded.   Agricultural Meteorological Science (Institute for Soil, Climate and Water, Entomology (Bio-Systematic) and the Fleece Testing Centre become part of the ARC.   The offices of Boskop and the Rural Foundation at Grootfontein close.


Far reaching constitutional changes occur after the General Election.    New provinces are formed.  The Department of Agriculture is divided into 9 provincial and 1 National Department of Agriculture.   The Karoo Region is divided between the eastern Cape, Western Cape and Northern Cape Provinces.   This has an impact on extension services, soil conservation and the research stations.   Grootfontein lies within the boundaries of the Eastern Cape, but is awarded to the Northern Cape.


A dispute develops about where Grootfontein should belong.  The uncertainty has a negative impact on the staff and student numbers.


Dr D Wentzel is appointed Acting Director: 1 April 1996 – 31 March 1997.   Several skilled staff members leave Grootfontein.


The Entomology section of the ARC at Grootfontein closes.   The office of the Soil, Climate and Water section moves to Dohne.   The sub-directorate Economics moves to Upington.   The sub-directorate Engineering closes.  The Crop Production section moves to Upington.   The Resources Conservation Section (Locust control) of the NDA moves to De Aar.   The number of staff decreases further.


The National Department of Agriculture moves in and appoints an interim director.  AO de Lange: 1 April 1998 – 31 March 1999.


It is agreed by all parties involved that Grootfontein should form part of the National Department of Agriculture.  PGF Coetzee is appointed as Acting Director: 1 April 1999 – 31 December 2000.


Grootfontein becomes a directorate as part of the Chief Directorate Planning, Monitoring, Evaluation and Communication of the National department of Agriculture.


M J Herselman is appointed as Acting Senior Manager: 1 January 2001 – present.


Student training is upgraded and modules where students earn credits are presented.


Student numbers rise to 143.